Miles Davis famously said that there is no such thing as wrong notes. Well, if Mr. Davis genuinely believed that, then he missed his true calling in life. He should’ve been a teacher or a motivational speaker instead of one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. Heaven knows, we as a society could’ve really used his fresh approach to making mistakes.
“Embrace the suck.” Online drum educator Mike Johnston hands out bracelets emblazoned with this motto to his students. Members of the Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps live by this creed. It assures them that it’s alright and even expected to sound lousy when learning something new. Mistakes are acknowledged and analyzed. If these drummers can accept and even welcome mistakes, why can’t the rest of us?
A quick review of articles on mistake-making reveal a plethora of reasons. Perfectionism. The belief and fear of looking incompetent, amidst a society that demands high performance in nearly all areas of life. And something author Alina Tugend refers to as “hindsight bias.” This phenomenon was discussed in Margarita Tartikovsky’s review of Tugend’s book, “Better by Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong”. Once we mess up, it’s a lot easier to see where we went wrong than it is when we’re in the thick of a situation. This hindsight tends to turn the incident into a “no duh” moment. We forget to show compassion toward ourselves and fail to realize that, in some cases, the mistake was unavoidable.
Well, where does this leave us fearful perfectionists who are terrified of letting our guard down? Psychology professor Martin Antony and his co-author, Richard Swinson, have a solution. We don’t fear mistakes, but rather what we believe about them; it’s these beliefs that fuel our anxiety and fears. It’s best, then, to confront the erroneous beliefs head on.
Antony and Swinson recommend “practicing” the act of screwing up. That is, make small mistakes that have only mild consequences, rather then avoiding them. Identify those negative beliefs about mistakes and substitute them with alternative thoughts and beliefs.
Teacher Diane Hanel uses what she calls the “experiential learning cycle”. Once you make a mistake, use hindsight to answer these three questions: what happened, what was the result/what did it mean to you, and how will you do things differently based on this outcome? These three very simple questions can help analyze the situation without embarrassment, shame or other emotional baggage.
So let’s all embrace the suck, show our humanity by screwing up badly sometimes. Let’s make errors and then forgive ourselves. Learn. Grow.