Making new mistakes


This is part of a map of Calcutta published in 1842. It’s the city I was born in, the city I grew up in, the city that was my home for the first twenty-three years of my life. A city I remember with fond memories and one I visit with joy in my heart. [Incidentally, it’s a map whose original is safely with me, and whose copyright might just have expired by now, 175 years later…]

The city shown above is a very different city from the one I grew up in.

I was born in Lower Circular Road, Sealdah, in 1957. A few years later, after the death of his father, my father moved us to Hindustan Park, Ballygunge, and that’s where I stayed till 1969. That would have meant nothing to the people who lived in Calcutta when the map was drawn. There wasn’t much happening in Ballygunge then. Fields.

The house I was born in had a bloody great railway station close by. It didn’t start getting built till 1869. The Jesuit school and college I went to, St Xavier’s, aren’t on the map either. All you see are what I think are the grounds to the Bishop’s Palace, some of which became my alma mater in 1860.

The house I inhabited during my last decade in Calcutta, on Moira Street, wasn’t built by then. But the road existed. Theatre Road is on the map, with a massive theatre at the Chowringhee end. The road was still there when I was there, but sans theatre. Free School Street, where I could buy secondhand books and albums cheaply, is shown; it then still had a Free School on it; I know the road but never saw the school.

I whiled away many hours in the New Market, Lindsay Street. That didn’t get built till 1874, more than thirty years after the map above. Fenwick’s Bazaar, the reason why New Market was “new”, doesn’t make the grade, either nonexistent or too small to count.

Victoria Memorial, another place I spent many hours in, doesn’t make the map. Not surprising, since Victoria was very much alive and not a subject of memorials when the map was drawn. She would get her memorial later, built between 1906 and 1921.

I rarely left Calcutta during my time there; when I did, it was usually by train, from Howrah Station. I have wonderful memories of that place, the sights, sounds and smells. Buying platform tickets in large quantities as we greeted or saw off family members. Remembering where the car was parked, off Platform 9, always for some reason near a damp part of the platform, and never far from a bookseller. Watching the redshirted coolies go about their business, as kitchen-sink holdalls and trunks were transported along with their kitchen-sink owners.

No Howrah Station on the map. Hadn’t been built. If it had been built, it would have been a job getting there. No Howrah Bridge there. That would come later.

No Lansdowne Road, where Miss P. Hartley set up her school in a converted stables, my happy home from 1963-1965. That was opposite where Gyan Singh used to live, the Gyan who influenced my taste in music more than anyone else, the Gyan who married my cousin Jayashree (who was almost as big an influence on my musical taste), the Gyan whose son is the Singh in Parekh and Singh. The Gyan I still miss. (And Jayashree, get well soon!).


The Calcutta of the map is a very different Calcutta from the one I grew up in.

Just like today.

The Calcutta of today is also one that’s very different from the one I grew up in.

This post is not a wallowing-in-nostalgia post. Instead, what I’m trying to do is to emphasise the importance of knowing past contexts.

Esther Dyson, someone I admire greatly, someone I’ve learnt a lot from listening to, reading and observing, used to sign off her emails with “Always make new mistakes”. I loved that. It made complete sense in the “I have not failed, I have found ten thousand ways that do not work” mould.

To make new mistakes, you must know what the old mistakes were. To interpret an action as a mistake, context is critical. Without that the correct lesson isn’t learnt, and we get into a “history repeats itself” cycle.

Every organisation I join, every organisation I spend time with, I try and understand what went on earlier. The context in which prior decisions were made. The assumptions, the consequences. It is only in that hindsight that the unintention of the consequences becomes clear.

Without that contextual awareness of the decisions and the history, I can’t be sure I’m making new mistakes.

Much has been made of the need for organisations to become learning organisations. A learning organisation is a failing organisation. It must be a failing organisation, but with a difference. Failures aren’t repeated. They are learnt from.

Many organisations are set up to militate against failure. That militancy is deep in organisation culture. And in that very militancy lie the roots of real failure, the failure that comes from not learning.

Making new mistakes is hard if you don’t know about the mistakes of the past. You don’t need to re-make the mistakes of the past in order to learn from them. But you must know about them. And know the context in which they were made.

That requires a cultural willingness to accept mistakes, to record them, to understand the context in which they were made, and to understand what was done to deal with the root cause.

Not all the maps I study are geographical in nature. Some of them aren’t maps. Some aren’t even written. But they all give me context in which to understand and learn from past mistakes.

So that I can keep making new ones.




2 thoughts on “Making new mistakes”

  1. This post goes to the heart of what I see as the key to digital civilisation, which is curation. That is the great opportunity, isn’t it? The chance to move beyond a turgid cycle of history repeating because of the great repositories of knowledge we can create and the enhanced progress that can be made through having heightened awareness.

    But there is also this point too about muscle memory. How, as groups and societies, we tend to act and behave according to well-established neural pathways and established synaptic responses. Human beings seeking formative experiences love the thrill of the new, and yet are simultaneously in fear of it, defaulting back to what is known very easily.

    It doesn’t take much for an organisation to lock into old patterns in the face of innovation. It can almost be a collective resistance. The larger the legacy, the more defensively avenues of existing protocol can be collectively maintained, even when there are fresh fields on the horizon.

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