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Embracing Mistakes

tangle of bicycle parts
Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

I made a mistake. And it was horrible. Actually, it was a constellation of mistakes, because there never is just one.

But I realized something, finally, after all these years… It wasn’t the mistake that made it horrible, it was how I beat myself up about the mistake.

I’ve been re-reading John Heider’s The Tao of Leadership and came across a passage about simply observing:

The wise leader pays respectful attention to all behavior. Thus the group becomes open to more and more possibilities of behavior. People learn a great deal when they are open to everything and not just figuring out what pleases the teacher.

We all know we learn from our mistakes. But somehow I got it stuck in my head that if I’m good enough, I won’t make mistakes. That somehow, the object of learning is to get to a point where you aren’t making any mistakes at all. That’s the ideal condition.

But that’s boring. That’s like walking. When I first learned to walk, I fell down a lot. After a while, I got steadier on my feet and eventually I was walking everywhere. Now I don’t give it a second thought. Literally. I walk for miles and I don’t think about all the skill it takes to put one foot in front of the other.

Now I have other things to think about. Other things I’m learning. Other areas where I’m making mistakes.

My learning edge is where I’m making the most mistakes. The places where I’m not making mistakes is the territory I’ve already mastered and has become routine.

Mistakes are crucial for learning. If I’m not tripping over what I don’t know, I’m only rehashing what I’ve already learned—I’m not gaining ground.

And yet I’d gotten it into my head that I must not make mistakes. Mistakes are bad and to be avoided at all costs.

What a limiting point of view! That means I’m stuck in territory that I already know. I’m stuck walking around the house instead of exploring the mountains outside.

What I’m starting to realize is that I need to get better at failing. Not that the goal is to fail; the goal is to progress. But getting there necessarily involves a lot of falling down before I get my feet under me.

Getting better at failing, for me, means failing peaceably—not beating myself up for a mistake ( which, by the way, invariably splashes over to those around me). It means “paying respectful attention to all behavior.” It means observing the mistake, accepting it, gathering its nugget of wisdom and making a correction.

I’m not saying I’m good at this yet, but I’m starting to understand how this works. Mistakes don’t have to be so painful. The pain comes from the thrashing I give myself. Take away the thrashing and what do you have? A learning opportunity. What could be more precious?

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