Doctors make decisions of life and death. Editors checks facts and decide matters of grammar. Not comparable.
And yet, as I watched Brian Goldman, MD, admit that all doctors make mistakes, I felt sympathy. Goldman listed some of his. In that spirit, here is a quick list of some of mine:
- The mistyped caption that placed a bird on a “next”
- The photo we ran upside down
- The feral pig I mislabeled as a javelina
- The California condor I misidentified as a turkey vulture
- The article I left out of the table of contents
- The feature I championed that got shot down at the layout stage—twice
- The freelance writer whose unreasonable demands I overlooked well past the moment when I should have said, “Enough”
My most recent mistake was mislabeling a flock of Northern shovelers as mallards. Most of my errors go away in two months. We run a correction in the next issue, and that’s that. This one will have a longer shelf life: It’s on the “February” page of our 2013 calendar.
When Goldman talked about how easily he remembers his mistakes, I knew what he meant: My full list takes me under a minute to type, not because it’s so short, but because I remember each error so clearly.
Our brains are programmed to remember what we do wrong and learn from errors. That’s a good thing, for the evolution of our species. You don’t survive long if you continually forget how to avoid life-threatening situations. It makes life hard, however, for individual humans.
Goldman described the shame he feels after every mistake. I feel some small slice of that shame as well. To reinforce my embarrassment, my boss is getting an email a day from readers who point out my error in tones ranging from “So sorry to mention this” to “You people must be idiots.”
Ironically, what I tell myself in cases like this is, Well, it’s not life or death. I do know the difference between my profession and Goldman’s. But it’s the similarities that strike me.
One more example: Goldman says we’re supposed to pretend there are two kinds of doctors, those who are perfect (who get to stay doctors) and those who make mistakes (who are kicked out). He points out that if we continue to force good doctors out of the profession for not being perfect, eventually there will be no doctors.
I’m here to tell you, there is only one kind of editor. I don’t bat a thousand, and I’m not alone. We strive for perfection because that’s the kind of people we are. But we accept excellence because we are, after all, just people.