Mistakes are a key piece for learning.
We’ve been trained to avoid making mistakes, but mistakes are a crucial piece of the learning experience.
Miles Davis famously told players in his band there are no wrong notes. ‘Wrong notes’ are simply notes we haven’t resolved yet. With the right approach, ‘mistakes’ stir our creativity and mentally push our boundaries. The ‘wrong notes’ push us to find a way to resolve them beautifully, often in a way we never would have thought of if we hadn’t unintentionally created the need and possibility.
“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
It is never a mistake if you learn something.
Mistakes and learning occur at different frequencies. When something is labeled as a mistake, that often comes with a negativity that shuts us down. We shift into a whoa-is-me mentality, feeling bad for ourselves, beating ourselves up, catastrophizing, or extending the spilled ice tea urn into a giant negative generalization about ourselves or our world. And then, we sit there in the wet, sticky mess. We miss an opportunity.
But what happens when we stop focusing on mistakes and instead look for opportunities? The spilled ice tea gives us an opportunity to mop a floor that needed a little love. The action that just led to an undesired outcome is a chance to learn — apparently I shouldn’t put that there. Learning how not to do something leads to discovery, insight, and innovation, if we let it.
Before finding one solution that worked, Thomas Edison made thousands of lightbulbs that didn’t work. His response to the trials: “I haven’t failed — I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work.”
We have been raised and conditioned in a so-called ‘education’ system that takes our ‘mistakes’ and circles them in a red pen of shame. We are ingrained into a culture that grades us on making as few mistakes as possible. But this is not learning, and a lack of mistakes does not equal intelligence.
Our educational system is the largely unchanged artifact of a system designed to produce compliant workers to fill jobs in factories during the industrial age. Our schools were created to mass produce workers for factory jobs.
Real learning comes on the tails of what at first looks like a mistake. The red pen mentality was a hand grenade lobbed into the heart of creativity, play and experimentation. Avoidance of mistakes doesn’t make us happy, it doesn’t make our hearts sing, and doesn’t help us reach our full potential.
Self-expression, creativity and play is the glimmering edge of learning. It may feel like these bastions of inner freedom have been cultured out of us, but they are still there, perhaps lying dormant, waiting for a chance to be allowed to play, try, create, crash-and-burn, explore, and make mistakes; in short, to learn and to grow.
If making a lightbulb requires thousands of attempts, iterations, and learning opportunities along the way, why do we expect to be able to learn, accomplish, create, and design without mistakes? If creating a lightbulb takes trial and error, shouldn’t we give ourselves at least a few chances when it comes to creating our own brilliant lives and outcomes?
Each iteration and experiment, happy accident, and wild shot in the dark teaches us something — if we are open to learning. Every ‘mistake’ moves us closer to our goals, and helps us to redefine them along the way. Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
How many ‘mistakes’ and how much learning stand between where you are now and your own lightbulb moment?
Originally published on medium.com.