The best books about people making mistakes: mythic, silly, tragic

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an emeritus professor of psychology (University of Washington) who has long been intrigued by the mistakes that people have made throughout history. I’ve long been struck by Oppenheimer’s observation, immediately after the Trinity explosion, that “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This led me to look into the wide array of mistakes, from the mythic, literary, athletic, business, political, medical, and military. In writing OOPS!, I let myself go in a way that I’ve never before, writing with a critical and wise-ass style that isn’t strictly academic, but is factually accurate and, frankly, was a lot of fun!


I wrote...

OOPS! The Worst Blunders of All Time

By David P. Barash,

Book cover of OOPS! The Worst Blunders of All Time

What is my book about?

As Mr. Rogers’ used to sing “Everyone makes mistakes, so why can’t you?” OOPS! tells the story of renowned blunders, from the mythic (Pandora, the Trojan Horse), to the silly (Wrong-Way Corrigan, the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees) to the tragically consequential (Napoleon invading Russia, Trump’s disastrous response to COVID). Readers can learn from the mistakes of others while also experiencing a dose of  Schadenfreude.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

David P. Barash Why did I love this book?

Two renowned social psychologists show how people—some famous and some not—avoid taking responsibility for their blunders.

By the book''s end, we see how we avoid admitting our missteps, and aware of how much our own (and everyone's) lives would improve if we could simply say, ''I made a mistake. I'm sorry.”

By Elliot Aronson, Carol Tavris,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. This updated edition concludes with an extended discussion of how we can live with dissonance, learn from it, and perhaps, eventually, forgive ourselves.

Why is it so hard to say “I made a mistake”—and really believe it?

When we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so, unconsciously, we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral,…


Book cover of Mistakes That Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be

David P. Barash Why did I love this book?

A fun-filled account of, well, mistakes that worked. I didn’t know, for example, that sandwiches came about when an English earl was too busy gambling to eat his meal and needed to keep one hand free. That potato chips happened when a chef was furious when a customer complained that his fried potatoes weren’t thin enough.

Encouraging for those of us prone to our share of oops!

By Charlotte Foltz Jones, John O'Brien (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mistakes That Worked as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

The greatest discoveries are made outside the classroom! Learn all about mistakes that changed the world with this collection of the strange stories behind everyday inventions! It's no accident that you'll love this book!
 
SANDWICHES came about when an English earl was too busy gambling to eat his meal and needed to keep one hand free. POTATO CHIPS were first cooked by a chef who was furious when a customer complained that his fried potatoes weren’t thin enough. Coca-Cola, Silly Putty, and X rays have fascinating stories behind them too! Their unusual tales, and many more, along with hilarious cartoons…


Book cover of Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions

David P. Barash Why did I love this book?

The title says it well. Sometimes we all need to forgive ourselves for our errors, and to take a clear, sober look at our blunders.

This book shows how rigid thinking can subtly lead us to undermine ourselves. In the process, it identifies seven "cognition traps" to avoid. Easier said than done… but includes some very worthwhile advice.

By Zachary Shore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blunder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Engaging…Teases out the cause and effect of seven [cognition] traps with witty stories of famous blunders…to teach the basis of good judgment. L ike all good historians he's hoping we can avoid making the same mistake twice."―O, The Oprah Magazine

For anyone whose best-laid plans have been foiled by faulty thinking, Blunder reveals how understanding seven simple traps―Exposure Anxiety, Causefusion, Flat View, Cure-Allism, I nfomania, Mirror Imaging, Static Cling―can make us all less apt to err in our daily lives.


Book cover of Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

David P. Barash Why did I love this book?

It is both entertaining and informative to learn how some of the greatest scientists have been wrong… at least some of the time.

Because of its triumphs, many people look upon science as unerring. Those of us involved in science, however, know that its power comes from its self-correction. Livio shows how scientific mistakes happen and also how they result in ever-closer approximations to the truth.

By Mario Livio,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brilliant Blunders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. And that includes five of the greatest scientists in history -- Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, Albert Einstein. But the mistakes that these great scientists made helped science to advance. Indeed, as Mario Livio explains in this fascinating book, science thrives on error; it advances when erroneous ideas are disproven.

All five scientists were great geniuses and fascinating human beings. Their blunders were part of their genius and part of the scientific process. Livio brilliantly analyses their errors to show where they were wrong and right, but what…


Book cover of The United States of Epic Fails: 52 Crazy Stories and Blunders Through History That You Didn't Get Taught in School

David P. Barash Why did I love this book?

This is an accessible account of history through the lens of how “mistakes were made,” and how most of us aren’t told about them.

It is plain old-fashioned great fun to read about blunders in the worlds of business, sports, pop culture, even some of America’s epic military failures (so long as they happened long ago!). A great corrective to claims that the US is uniquely blessed with perfection.

By Bill O'Neill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The United States of Epic Fails as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Have you ever wondered what the biggest failures in American history are?

Which sports teams just can’t seem to catch a break and keep failing, over and over and over in the most disastrous manner?

What are some of the biggest failures in American pop culture?

In The United States of Epic Fails: 52 Crazy Stories and Blunders Through History That You Didn't Get Taught in School you’ll learn all about these embarrassing moments and many other American failures on an epic level.

Here you will find out:

What film almost destroyed a major studio and killed a movie genre?…


You might also like...

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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