In Defense of Making Mistakes

In my first year on the faculty at St. John’s College, a senior colleague sat down beside me at lunch and asked what classes I was teaching. After I told him, he grinned and gave me some hopeless advice: “It’s best to avoid teaching a class for the first time.”

Right. Who wouldn’t prefer to skip over that stage of learning when awkwardness and mistakes are inevitable and go straight to mastery? But we can no more skip this stage and still be on the path to mastery than I could solve the riddle of becoming an experienced teacher without first being an inexperienced one. Since resistance is futile, let’s put the best face we can on awkwardness, fuck-ups, and failures.

They are easier to embrace when you see the crucial part they play in all learning.  In his excellent book, The Potent Self: A Study of Spontaneity and Compulsion, Moshe Feldenkrais explains that

making mistakes is essential to satisfactory learning. During the apprenticeship, mistakes are correct action; they are agreed on and are part of the business. One cannot become a master of any field of human endeaver without the most important item of learning how to do, which is the personal experience of what not to do.

I’m grateful for this reminder, as I am now in the midst of big changes in my life, both professionally and personally. I am beginning again, an apprentice again.  And I notice that I am making mistakes. Lots of them. Daily.  And not the interestingly nuanced mistakes of a seasoned pro, but the boringly obvious mistakes of a rookie.

Often my first instinctive response to a mistake is a feeling of shame, accompanied by a familiar gremlin who exists, apparently, to gather evidence of my general unworthiness. I used to take him more seriously, but now I send the old mischief-maker packing as soon as I notice him. I remind myself that feelings of regret and even guilt for having acted unskillfully are “part of the business,” for such feelings are related to the action itself and spur improvement. However, shame is the feeling of being unworthy at our core, and as such it is clearly an obstacle to learning, as is whatever contributes to depression or anxiety.

Fortunately, I also have a better nature, one that knows in his bones the truth of Feldenkrais’s point that mistakes made in the course of practicing an art are “correct action.” This part of me desires to learn from my experience, to develop my skills, and, yes, to avoid making the same painful mistakes in the future.

Another reason many of us prefer to skip this stage is that in the early stages of learning how to do anything well there is awkwardness, wasted effort, and drudgery—as anyone learning to play an instrument knows. Feldenkrais offers a cautionary tale about how

very capable men and women often ruin their lives just by skipping or passing too rapidly through some part of the normal apprenticeship. I know some extremely gifted engineers who cannot reach the position they deserve, just because they have been foolish enough to think that it is enough to understand mechanics and mathematics and have therefore totally neglected the drudgery of working out examples….The sooner they sit down to close the gap in their apprenticeship, the better is their chance of getting what is rightfully within their reach.

While not beset by shame gremlins, these talented engineers nevertheless resist rolling up their sleeves and engaging with the often tedious low-concept labor that’s involved in learning how to apply one’s knowledge. No question about it: bringing our theories and bright ideas into practice means embracing the drudgery of working out the examples, stumbling over the scales and chord changes, in short, learning from painstaking experience how to handle skillfully the practical matters involved.

For me, anyway, it’s easier to bear the tedium and the drudgery and the fuck-ups when I don’t take them too personally, when I remind myself that they’re part of the territory we all pass through on our way to learning how to do anything well. It’s also encouraging to keep in mind that the best way to handle this difficult, profoundly vulnerable, territory is to move through it with acceptance, curiosity, grit, and self-compassion.

The good news is that it’s correct action to be kind and gentle and encouraging of our beginner selves—our curious, capable, still learning-and-growing selves—who dare to act incompetently in the short term for the sake of acting beautifully in the end.

That’s the story I’m telling myself, anyway. It helps that it’s a true story.

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