On making mistakes

02 January 2015

A few years ago, writer Neil Gaiman published his wish for the new year:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

It was a wish I took to heart. During the last half of my life, I’ve been on a slow, fumbling, determined quest to embrace making mistakes. A deeply-rooted terror of doing anything wrong kept me limited to a very small scope of life in my early years, and it took me too long to realize that was not how I wanted to live.

So far, I’ve learned two vital lessons about making mistakes. The first is that being willing to make mistakes also means being willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of that mistake, and for living out the lessons it affords. This is why we are scared of making mistakes—not necessarily for the mistakes themselves, but because the process of accepting and learning from mistakes is so difficult. It requires we face the shame of having done wrong, and live with that shame until we’ve either corrected the mistake and/or corrected our future path so that we don’t make it again. The shame is what we run away from. The shame is what trips us. And that’s what traps us into making the same mistakes over and over again and never righting the original offense.

Shame is not always an inappropriate reaction to a mistake. To a certain extent, it’s an entirely appropriate reaction. It serves a purpose, it teaches us we have done something wrong. But too often we let it overwhelm us. Too often our shame is out of proportion to the mistake, or out of proportion to our perceived ability to deal with it, and that dictates our course for the worse. While at some point it’s the internal shame that takes over, the internal shame comes from external shame, and external shame is something for which we are all responsible.

Which is the second lesson: if we want to be able to learn how to make and right mistakes ourselves, we have to create a space where others are able to do that too. It doesn’t mean we excuse or brush away things done wrong. It means we start out with empathy and consideration, and, instead of leveling shame as a hammer, we offer the opportunity to accept responsibility with the promise of supporting the subsequent growth. If that opportunity is refused, the consequences of that stand. But participating in culture where the opportunity doesn’t even exist boomerangs back to hurt us.

The older I get, the more I don’t see any answers other than treating people how I want to be treated. (I’m slightly dismayed by how many seemingly trite truths are proving themselves to be wisdom the longer I live and think about the world. But so it is.) I don’t want to be judged by others’ expectations. I don’t want my potential to be dismissed. I want to be able to make mistakes and be accepted as imperfect and be supported to learn and grow. So that’s what I have to give to others.

In last week’s newsletter, I made a mistake in one of the links. I got a flood of email, tweets and retweets of the original tweets. I haven’t heard from so many people at the same time in months. I appreciate the attention paid to what I put out, and I appreciate those who pointed out the mistake with kindness, but I was honestly taken aback by the force and amount of the response. If anyone had any idea of me has a perfect person, I have to tell you all right now that I’m not infallible and it’s a fair bet that I’ll make another mistake, probably even more than one, as this newsletter goes on. One of the things that drew me to the format of sending emails is that, unlike a website, it’s impossible to edit or adjust once it’s sent out. It challenges my fear of mistakes in a good way. It forces me to say: this is me, as-is, in my own context, with all sorts of external factors that are constantly changing and constantly changing the calculation of what you end up with—and, yet, it’s still me, and it’s still okay.

I hope you’re with me in creating a space where mistakes are not only allowed but encouraged, where you have enough empathy for and trust in me to understand the small missteps and support me through the big ones, where the perpetual flux of imperfect growth and experimental creation is a beautiful thing. I hope you’re creating a space like that for yourself. If you need a hand, I’ll back you up.


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