Today I looked up the etymology of “mistake.” I learned that the word comes from Old Norse (mistaka, which translates to “take in error”) and Old French (mesprendre, which translates to “misunderstand”). Usage across the Google Books corpus has dramatically decreased from 1800 to now – but I don’t think that means that we’ve been making fewer mistakes! On the contrary, I seem to make more and more mistakes every year; though I hope to at least make different ones!
There’s a lot of richness in those definitions of mistakes – let’s explore them together and see what they have to teach us about spreadsheets!
Mmmmmm mistaka… rhymes with mousaka!
Mistaka is best translated as “take in error” which is exactly what a bad spreadsheet can do! Spreadsheets with unclear column names, confusing tabs, conditional formatting that highlights the wrong information, Pivot Tables that have not been refreshed, data that have gone out of date, formulas that represent erroneous logic (trying not to use the word mistake again!), duplicate rows, and more — take in errors (on the data entry side) and represent errors (on the user side). Oy vey!
With so much potential error, why do people even use spreadsheets? Don’t let this list get you down… we can learn from all of these issues and build better spreadsheets next time around!
The French etymology suggests that ‘mistake’ might have roots in “misunderstanding.” Have you ever shared a spreadsheet with someone and have them come to a completely different conclusion than you? Sometimes that’s good – if you want to share information and stimulate discussion. But sometimes it can be bad if the information is confusing or misleading!
This reminds me of a time when I made a spreadsheet to represent the on-going cost of staff turnover, but I hadn’t clearly labeled my formula fields. Since the salary of each position has a big impact on the cost of replacing them, it’s pretty important to show what salary number we used as an average! Instead of hiding that number in the formula, it would have been better to put it in a cell, so that we could change the number and see the impact on the grand total. Fortunately, my supervisor asked me good questions so that we could understand the conclusions together — and get on the same… “tab.”
Examples of misunderstanding abound! What about budget spreadsheets that don’t clearly show if you are over or under budget? Or workplans where you can’t tell if the spreadsheet is divided into weeks or months? OR subtotals where you can’t tell which rows are included? Or tabs with names like “final” “final2” “use this one!” We’ve all been there 🙂
Learning from mistakes
Well, we’ve learned a bunch about the word mistake, but what about from actual mistakes? I want to introduce you to an incredible resource for spreadsheet training called Data Carpentry that I actually just found out about today! They have lessons about spreadsheets for very concrete purposes (maybe something like I might want to for changemakers one day?!). I especially like this one, which addresses Formatting problems that Ecologists often make. Not an ecologist? Perhaps you’d be more interested in the lesson for social scientists. If neither one feels right, Data Carpentry offers other tracks, or you can just pick one of the above and try it out! They provide lessons and great examples and datasets to learn some spreadsheet best practices and even check your work – all for free!
But no “best practice” lesson in the world is going to compare to your own life experience sitting around a table with fellow changemakers and turning a spreadsheet into meaning. I’d love to hear YOUR stories about making mistakes and making meaning. Leave a comment or send me an email!
And seriously, every spreadsheet mistake is a learning opportunity – so much is possible! This makes me very optimistic about our ability to learn and grow and transform as changemakers.