MISTAKES IN TECH - KITT HIRASAKI
Kitt is a product designer who’s a 9-year veteran of the edtech industry, having worked at Khan Academy, Coursera, and now a new startup, ByteLearn.ai, which helps students to learn from their math mistakes.
He previously worked as an animation software developer at Pixar and Disney Animation, and as a peon on Hollywood primetime TV shows. In the previous millennium, he graduated from Harvard University. He has historically had a low tolerance for his own mistakes but is learning to give himself a break.
Kitt's Guide to Dealing with Mistakes:
People are all different. We have different interests and different talents.
Sometimes, I would think, I wish I were more like this person, or I wish something about me were different. For things that are in my control, where I can get better, or improve, I think it’s valuable to recognize that you can choose the direction you want to grow and put in effort to make yourself more like what you want to be.
Mistakes are a great opportunity to grow, and if you can overcome the negative emotional reaction to making a mistake and take the time to analyze it and come up with a better system for yourself so you don’t repeat it, that’s a really reliable way to get better at anything.
Make a mistake
Control / temper the emotional response
Understand the cause of the mistake
Brainstorm solutions to avoid the mistake in the future
Create a new habit or pattern to help you not make the mistake again
There are also some things that are really hard to change, like how tall you will be, and rather than being upset with those things as imperfections, recognize that it’s part of what makes you “you”.
Watch parts of the mistake Club's interview with Kitt below:
Read the full interview with Kitt below:
Your job is Head of Design at ByteLearn. Can you tell us what you do on a regular day?
Creating a new way for students to learn math. Students really hate getting stuck, and their teacher can’t always be there to help them. So we’ve created an artificially intelligent tutor that can help them step-by-step in understanding and solving math problems.
A lot of students today use Photomath for help with their homework. They take a picture of it, and it gives them the solution steps and final answer. It’s an easy way to cheat and get your homework done, but Photomath doesn’t actually help students learn math.
When students work with our artificially intelligent tutor, Byte, they have to try to answer the steps of the problem themselves. It’s totally fine to make mistakes. In fact, Byte really only works when students make mistakes, because depending on the student’s answer, they may have different misconceptions or ways they’re confused, and it’s only from that mistake that Byte can identify the specific problem and help the student learn the right way to do it instead.
What is the role of mistakes in your job? Why are (or aren’t) mistakes important in the process of designing a product?
In addition to the core of our the system we’re creating being about helping students learn when they make mistakes—a mistake is an incredible learning opportunity, even though it can sting when it happens, in my work of designing programs like this for people to use, I make tons and tons of mistakes.
In that context, a “mistake” is that we make the system work a certain way, but that’s not actually how teachers or students wanted it to work. For example, one mistake I made yesterday was in assuming that when a student is answering a math homework question on ByteLearn and let’s say, it has two parts, it would be okay for the student to have to answer both part 1 and part 2 before they find out if part 1 is correct.
However, the teachers we talked to strongly felt that it’s important for students to be able to check whether their first part is right before going on to the second part. I had an incorrect assumption that this wasn’t critical, so the design I created had this mistake built into it.
You have worked on many amazing companies like Walt Disney Animation Studios, Khan Academy, Pixar, Coursera. How do these companies deal with mistakes?
Pixar (and Disney Animation) are examples of companies where mistakes, if left unaddressed, turn into really big problems. This is because the thing that they do is make movies, which take about four years to create and the efforts of hundreds of people.
If there is a mistake or problem in the story and the director and team don’t figure it out as quickly as they can, then it gets really really expensive to fix it later. Pixar movies start out as written scripts and hand-drawn storyboard pictures, which are pretty inexpensive to create, certainly compared to the final images you see at the movie theater.
So they take all of these quick drawings, which kind of look like the panels from a comic book, and they sequence them together into a full-length version of the movie. You can probably find some online examples of the “storyboard” versions of scenes from Pixar movies.
The reason they do this is that then they can watch the whole movie and get a sense for where they may have made mistakes, where the story isn’t working, or where things are confusing, or unsatisfying, or not needed.
Then they can quickly come up with new ideas and draw them, put those changes into the storyboard reel, and watch the movie again to see if they’ve fixed the problem.
If you have a story problem but you don’t realize it’s a problem until after the animators have fully animated the 3d characters, which can take weeks for one 5-second shot, and then the time and resources putting in the lights and special effects, if you need to change or replace that shot, then all of that expensive work has to be thrown away.
So a big part of Pixar’s moviemaking success is that at every stage of the process, they’re trying to figure out their mistakes as quickly and cheaply as possible, because the later you discover the mistake, the more expensive and more difficult it is to fix it.
You are in Silicon Valley and we think everything there is perfect. Is that so? Why?
Silicon Valley is a giant mistake factory. There’s a term by the economist Alex Tabarrok called the “Invisible Graveyard”, which for Silicon Valley is the giant list of all of the companies that failed. People on the outside see the big successes, like Google or Facebook, but they don’t see the tens of thousands of failed companies.
It’s a very similar thing in Hollywood. I also tried working as a TV / screenwriter for about six years, but ultimately wasn’t successful at breaking into that career. It’s even more difficult for actors. For every actor you could name, there are thousands of other very talented actors who didn’t make it to the top. I know a lot of people working in Hollywood, and only a tiny handful of them become enormously successful.
What is the worst professional mistake you have made and how did you manage it? What did you learn from it? Would you change anything about the way you handled it?
rm -rf on all of the software used to make Pixar movies
Not interviewing with Google
Not taking a job at Instacart
Losing my temper while working on a TV show
What do you think is a common mistake when dealing with mistakes?
Hiding our mistakes is something people often do, because as a species, humans are very sensitive to what other humans think about them. Sometimes it’s possible to hide a mistake and it goes away. But a big mistake is “big” because it affects other people, and if you hide that, it just gets worse once it finally comes out.
Even if the mistake primarily affects just you, like you didn’t do a homework assignment and you ignore the problem, it just gets worse as the deadline gets really close, and you get more stressed, and then your parents get involved, and it turns into a whole thing. So when a mistake is made, it’s usually better to communicate it now instead of hiding from it.
Actually, I often refer to humans as status-maximization machines; if you look at people through that lens, it explains a lot of what people do. Yet we are such creatures of this world of relative status that we don’t see it because it’s ubiquitous in every interaction, in everything we do. Even here, in our conversation, there’s a delicate interplay between us around our relative status.
What do you think children should know about mistakes?
I’ve worked in education technology for almost a decade now, and I’ve come to understand the value of mistakes. When you just do something right the first time, like say, a new kind of math problem, you feel good and in control.
What happens for a lot of students, especially those who are really intelligent, is that they are able to learn what’s being taught, and a subject like math seems “easy” to them.
Then, one day, they get a math problem and they’re not able to figure out how to solve it.
There are two basic conclusions you can draw from this:
I can’t do this math problem because it is beyond my intelligence to understand
I can’t do this math problem… yet.
The first is an example of what’s known as a “fixed mindset,” where a person has the misconception that there are things they can either do, or can’t do, and there’s nothing they can do to move something from the “can’t” list into the “can” list.
The second is an example of a “growth mindset.” An analogy we used a lot at Khan Academy is to recognize that your brain is like a muscle -- the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
So while you weren’t able to understand that math problem, it doesn’t mean you never will. If you put in effort and practice, your mind will grow and you can learn it. You just haven’t learned it… yet.
Anytime you find yourself saying, “I can’t do this problem” or “I can’t beat the boss on this video game,” the reality is that “I can’t do this problem….yet” and “I can’t beat the boss on this video game...yet”. It might take you a lot of tries, and I’ve certainly spent a lot of my youth trying to master video games that were very difficult, but with focused, productive practice, you can make your brain stronger and solve that problem or beat that boss.
How were you as a kid?
As a kid, I am very much as I am as an adult. Something that I didn’t recognize until I was an adult is that really, old people are just young people who have been around longer.
So, as a kid, I was lucky to be born very intelligent, so it was easier for me to learn new things or win at games. I also had very strong emotions and spent a lot more time crying, often in public, than other kids.
The main thing that would make me cry was when I failed at something I wanted to succeed at: striking out at baseball, getting scored on as the soccer goalie, losing at a board-game like Monopoly. I guess I really like to win. Yes, I really like the feeling that comes from winning.
Sometimes these things would be in public, sometimes they would be in private. I’m someone who’s very sensitive to how other people perceive me. It’s not that I change myself to fit their expectations, but rather that I am doing my own thing, but I do try to tune in to how they think about me.
So, I still really like winning, and when I think I’m going to win, I get really emotionally amped, and when I lose, I get really emotionally devastated. When I make mistakes, often when playing games, that keep me from winning, I often beat myself up over them. I try not to make the same mistakes again and again, to learn from those mistakes. There’s a strategy game I’ve been playing online for a few years, it’s called “Dominion,” and I’ve definitely gotten better and learned from many of my mistakes, but I still make mistakes every single game because it’s just really hard to play perfectly.
Knowing what you know now, what would you tell 10YO you, that curious, innocent, creative kid about mistakes?
Mistakes aren’t fun, but if you pay attention to them and actively work to learn from them, you can reduce how often you repeat them and get better and better.
You can get better at anything you put your mind to. It will take time, and you may need to get guidance or advice from other people, but if you’re really interested in it and dedicated, you will improve.
People tend to pursue the things they have a talent for, which means, they can learn it faster than other skills they might learn. That’s fine, and it also gives you the motivation to overcome and learn from your mistakes.