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The Mistakes We Make

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Illustration: Aaron Gordon

On Monday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was roundly condemned, including by this website, for telling Axios’s HBO show that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government was “a serious mistake,” just like when Uber killed a woman with its self-driving car. Khosrowshahi then dismissed both incidents by saying “I think that people make mistakes.” And surely, people should be forgiven for their mistakes.

Khosrowshahi was castigated for his remark because, among other reasons, Khashoggi’s murder was not a mistake. He was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, strangled to death, and posthumously cut into pieces.


Uber’s CEO wasted little time beginning his subsequent public apology tour. An hour after the interview concluded, he called the show’s host to say he didn’t mean what he said. He—or, more accurately, his communications department—followed up the next day with an official written apology. In his statement, Uber’s CEO called the journalist’s murder “reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused.”

Khosrowshahi was asked about Khashoggi to begin with because Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund is Uber’s fifth-largest investor, having provided $3.5 billion to the rideshare company, not including whatever money the Saudis indirectly put into Uber through major investor Softbank’s Vision Fund. Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, the managing director of Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund, sits on Uber’s board. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the fund’s chairman. In short, this was a very good and very pertinent question for Axios to ask.


Uber’s existence entirely relies on investors like Saudi Arabia to keep pumping money into its coffers because Uber does not and has never made a profit. It is, in the strictest sense of what we think business are, not a good one. So it relies on investors who are interested in things other than making money to keep it afloat. Last year, Bloomberg wrote, “As the fallout from the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents roils Silicon Valley, there is arguably no company more deeply intertwined with Saudi Arabia than Uber.”

This is a relationship Khosrowshahi did not choose, but inherited. Khosrowshahi took over for Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder who was ousted in 2017 after a series of public nightmares that thoroughly demonstrated, among other flaws, his inability to admit mistakes. Among the mistakes Kalanick made: knowing and doing nothing about the rampant sexual harassment and frat-boy culture at Uber, berating an Uber driver who dared to ask about the company’s policy of repeatedly slashing driver wages, and overseeing a company that used computer code to deceive regulators around the world.

Kalanick did eventually apologize for his actions in March 2017 after he was caught on camera berating the Uber driver, in which he wrote: “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.” But it was firmly in the too-little-too-late category of famous people mea culpas.


A few months later, just before he resigned from Uber, Kalanick wrote a letter more fully reckoning with his failures as a leader. The letter, which was published in Mike Isaac’s book about Uber, Super Pumped, was excerpted at Gizmodo, and included the following:

Growth is something to celebrate, but without the appropriate checks and balances can lead to serious mistakes. At scale, our mistakes have a much greater impact — on our teams, customers and the communities we serve. That’s why small company approaches must change when you scale. I succeeded by acting small, but failed in being bigger.


It is, as far as I can tell, the only time Kalanick used the word “mistake,” as least in a serious, self-reflective manner. But he never sent the letter.

Khosrowshahi was brought in to replace Kalanick precisely because of this contrast. Kalanick required years of scandal and his imminent ouster from the company he founded before he was, by his own admission, willing to admit he was not fit to lead. Isaac’s book clearly paints the picture of a man who has a very narrow definition of mistakes, one too narrow for a leader.


On the other hand, Khosrowshahi’s quick draw after the Saudi Arabia remark demonstrates he worships at the altar of mistakes, because to admit one’s mistake with rapidity and sincerity is the professional CEO’s greatest tool. It grants forgiveness without requiring a reckoning with what the mistake was to begin with.

That is why on Tuesday Khosrowshahi told his company during an all-hands meeting, according to the Washington Post, “‘I am sorry for what I said during that interview,’ he added, further characterizing his comments as a ‘mistake.’”


The mistake, you see, was not becoming CEO of a company reliant on investments from an autocratic monarchy with a horrendous human rights record and a board member directly representing their interests. It was not his company’s role—or, for that matter, his role—in reputation laundering.

No, it was just a mistake, you see, to use the words he used. To say the murder of a journalist by his company’s fifth-largest investor was a mistake, which, of course, it wasn’t. Even though his investor, the man who ordered the murder says it was just that as well—a mistake.


Across the world, but particularly in the United States, people of power and import recite the word “mistake” as an incantation to disappear the harm they have caused.

When Volkswagen was caught making a series of engineering decisions to knowingly and intentionally cheat emissions tests around the world, Chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch said the company made not one mistake, but “a chain of mistakes,” which is a wild way to describe years of systematic trickery that also involved one of its largest supplier companies.


General Motors’ deadly ignition switch fiasco years ago may have originated with a single “mistake,” but the subsequent mishaps around it and alleged cover-up over several years cannot charitably be described that way.

“We know we all made mistakes and got some things wrong,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told a Senate committee about his company’s systematic prioritization of profit over safety even as people inside and outside his company repeatedly warned they were making decisions that could, and ultimately did, kill hundreds of people. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter called awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a very wealthy nation with a horrendous human rights record that is building the venues for the tournament on the backs of indentured servants, a “mistake” but that “one makes lots of mistakes in life.” (He was, of course, talking about how it was a mistake to award the World Cup to Qatar because it is hot there.)


Mark Zuckerberg said “we made mistakes” after a whistleblower revealed Cambridge Analytica harvested data from Facebook, a massive private surveillance company masquerading as a communications firm, to target 50 million Americans with political advertising that helped elect Donald Trump.

In 2017, while being deposed in one of many lawsuits facing her company, Elizabeth Holmes allowed that, as CEO of Theranos, a wholly fraudulent company whose only true product was secrecy and intimidation, “I know that we made mistakes.”


Labeling these as “mistakes” is re-defining horrifying, unconscionable evil perpetrated by supposedly respectable businesspeople as nothing better or worse than forgetting to pay a parking ticket on time. It is spreading a glossy sheen over the well-defined landscape of morality, implying my mistake is just like your mistake.

Labeling these mistakes as such is the process of slipping a paper underneath the harm caused, placing a jar upside down over it, and then throwing it out the window. The mistake is the first step forwards forgiveness, which, we are taught, is the necessary conclusion to any and all mistakes.


But these are not mistakes.

Mistakes are negligent thought processes. They are when, as a result of having failed to foresee a consequence of our actions, an outcome we truly did not intend nevertheless comes to pass. You make a mistake by taking I-95 instead of the parkway only to get stuck in traffic due to an accident. You make a mistake forgetting to turn the oven off and burning dinner. You make a mistake leaving the door open after you leave the apartment or locking your keys in the car.


A mistake is not when you do the very thing you intended, but a bad thing occurs nevertheless. It would not be a mistake if I knowingly left the oven on because I was too lazy to get off the couch and burned dinner. It would not be a mistake if I left the door open to see if the dog would run away and he did.

All of us know the inherent power of the mistake. When asking for a lenient sentence, criminals tell judges they made a mistake. Employees tell their bosses they made a mistake by smoking in the bathroom. Teenagers tell parents they made a mistake throwing a party at the house. CEOs tell the public they made a mistake when their companies kill, maim, poison, violate, steal from, or harm people.


By calling something a mistake when it is not, one tries to pass it off as a contrite admission of responsibility. But it slyly turns it into a different and lesser kind of wrongdoing. It reduces a series of concrete actions that hurt people in real and important ways into a mere error in judgment. If only I had known, the “mistake”-maker pleads with the world and themselves, I wouldn’t have done it. It is a lie, because they did know, and they did it anyway. After all, in the case of Khashoggi, we are talking about actual murder and dismemberment.

Errors in thought, errors in the words we say, can be fixed with yet more words. To say “I made a mistake” is to then say “I am sorry for my mistake” and the mistake is nullified through the alchemy of forgiveness. Good people make mistakes.


But many wrongs we commonly label as “mistakes,” or that the wrongdoers knowingly attempt to miscategorize as such so they too can be a good person, are not errors in words but are errors in action. And errors in action are not mistakes. They are intentional harm, malice, greed, or evil.

When a CEO says I want this plane ready because we’ve got tens of billions of dollars on the line and if that means shoddy assembly line practices and half-assed software patches to fix the fact our plane is fundamentally not designed to fly because we don’t want to go through a whole new pilot re-certification process by building a plane we can’t call a 737 because that costs money and then two of those planes crash and 346 people die, that is not a mistake.


When a car company declares diesel is the future of clean driving and decides to program its cars’ computers to detect when it is going through an emissions test because admitting the company was wrong to place all its bets on diesel as clean fuel would be too expensive and embarrassing so it sells tens of millions of cars that poison people and the planet—that is also not a mistake.

And when a glorified taxi company grows so fast out of sheer, unadulterated greed, realizes it can never be profitable under its current business model because paying drivers is expensive; so it hires a self-driving car engineer known for taking risks and illegally using public roads as testing grounds; and then that same person fraudulently claimed to the California DMV the self-driving car ran a red light due to human error when in fact that self-driving car just didn’t detect the red light; and then employees at that company distributed stickers afterward with the self-driving car guru’s slogan of “Safety Third”; and then that self-driving car continues to get in dozens of crashes; and then a year later that self-driving car hits and kills a pedestrian because it was not programmed to detect people outside of crosswalks; is that a mistake?


After one of his cars killed Elaine Herzberg, Anthony Levandowski, the self-driving car guru, told the New Yorker “safety cannot be your No. 1 concern” if one’s goal is to advance technology. “If it is, you’ll never do anything.”

“You’ll never learn,” he said, “from a real mistake.”

But these people, the CEOs and the world leaders, never really learn from their “mistakes.” They learn how to avoid public scrutiny or say different words next time. But there is no reckoning with the rotten root of it all.


I believe Khosrowshahi when he says he didn’t believe the words he said, but I also believe he intended to say them. Watching the clip, he appeared flustered under questioning about his company’s uncomfortable and close relationship with this regime. His invocation of Herzberg’s death was a bizarre attempt to invoke the “mistake” as the great leveler on the moral landscape, but it only served to implicate him and his company further.

A more honest reckoning of his actions would not have included the word “mistake,” but would have reflected on why he felt so uncomfortable under questioning about that relationship. It would have acknowledged that there was no “mistake,” he was making a business decision to attempt to defend a major investor’s role in the murder of a journalist, just as he was making a business decision to attempt to downplay his company’s lasting culpability in killing of a woman.


In a more just and honest world, one it is everlastingly obvious we do not inhabit, Khosrowshahi may not have begged off the gaffe by invoking his “mistake,” but taken a different tack entirely. He would have acknowledged his mere attempt to justify or defend Khashoggi’s murder for business reasons made him profoundly uncomfortable with himself. Something is obviously very wrong. He may have said he not only needs to do some deep soul-searching about the role he inhabits in the world but also that of his company. He may have added he doesn’t have the answers yet, but he will get back to us on that because this state of affairs cannot stand.

That will never happen, of course, for various financial and geopolitical reasons. Such self-reflection would require him to understand that this is all much more pernicious than a series of unfortunate mistakes, but a deep condemnation of modern society. It is how the world works. Everyone just wants a single, magical word that makes the bad things you’ve done go away.


That’s the beauty of mistakes. You don’t have to change anything.