The Wisdom of Mistakes

February 23, 2018

     

 

     What does it mean to make mistakes? What over-all effect is caused by doing things “wrong” or unsuccessfully? I think this is an important subject to look into. We generally make the assumption that doing things in a way that doesn't produce the desired results is a bad thing-but is this true? 

     I’m going to have to make the argument that making mistakes is actually not as bad as some might think. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that mistakes might even be a good thing, in certain situations. Think about it. How would we ever learn anything if it wasn’t for making our own mistakes? Doing things incorrectly and learning from what didn’t work the first time is the foundation of human development. 

     In the case of children, we can see this in a way that is irrefutable. Each time a child tries to stand up and winds up falling back onto its soggy diaper, it is learning. Each time something gets picked up off the floor and placed into a curious mouth, only to be spit back out in disgust, that child is learning. Sure, you could call this unskillful decision a mistake but you would really be denying the true essence of that experience. 

     For adults, a mistake can be looked at in much the same way. It is just an opportunity for learning. We are testing the boundaries of what works in any given situation and as long as we take stock of the outcome and resolve to act accordingly next time, a mistake can actually become a powerful tool for achieving our goals. With a strong enough will and thick enough skin, we might even feel a sense of gratitude for the times where we miss the mark a little. We can see it as a sort of measurement that wasn’t there when we started. 

     For example, imagine that you are going to attempt your very first painting. On that first attempt, the canvas is going to be totally empty, and because you have no previous experience with this particular endeavor, you will probably feel like you are just tossing paint into some creamy abyss. This is totally natural and is just a leap that is inevitably required for all those who are brave enough to try something new and different.

     Now, it’s possible that you will turn out to be a natural and will take to this new practice like a fish to water...but it’s much more likely that your first painting is going to be sloppy and rather unremarkable. You will probably make all kinds of “mistakes” and will feel the need to give it another try. If this is the case, on the second painting, thanks to that courageous first attempt and because of what was learned before, you will now have a general outline (or at least an idea of what not to do) for the next session. 

     I once heard a great musician named Pat Donohue, tell a story about Chet Atkins, one of the greatest country finger picking guitar players of all time. Pat was on stage taking about Chet's philosophy about playing "wrong notes" and he was demonstrating everything he was saying on the guitar. Chet's idea was that a note can never be considered a wrong note as long as you play it twice. If you make a mistake and play something out of key, all you have to do is play it again and turn that mistake into an interesting new part of the song. As a way of proving this idea, Pat would deliberately play a note that was outside of the scale and then repeat the mistake until it became a part of the song. It was brilliant and totally turned the idea of making mistakes on its head. 

    The whole point is just to shift our perspectives about the things that land outside of our exceptions. If we can approach all situations in life with this kind of attitude, we will have a lot more resilience when it comes to making mistakes. We will be able to use them as fuel for innovation and creativity instead of allowing them to consume us with the ravenous flames of doubt and judgement.  

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