Tuesday, September 25, 2012


The great thing about learning from my mistakes is that I have so many great teachers. I mean, shoot, I might have more than anyone I know.  Or perhaps... hmm... maybe I'm just more aware of them as such. After all, we all make mistakes, right?

Thing is that most of us see a mistake as a bad thing and therefor miss the teacher within. It's a reasonable way to think. After all, by the time we begin to toddle, people teach us that mistake = bad. Sometimes we're taught overtly, e.g., when your dad says, "well that was a dumb-ass thing to do." Sometimes we're taught covertly, e.g., when a well-meaning teacher, trying to be encouraging, overlooks your mistake or feigns not having seen it.

In either case, we get the message (or at least a message). In the former, it's pretty clear and easy to identify: Don't try that again.

In the latter, it's garbled. You know something wasn't quite right, but you're not sure what. The person who seems to know what's going on says, "good job" or "good try", but doesn't point out anything that you did incorrectly. So you assume that what you're doing must be right or that it's so wrong they've given up on you. The words and actions don't resonate with your own sensibilities.

In either case, you come to the conclusion that something is wrong with what you did. Further, no one is pointing out specifically how to learn from it, I mean, other than, "don't try that again."

It's All Good
I gotta say that the first step in learning from mistakes is to start by judging them as good.

Yup, judge them as G-O-O-D, good. It's not enough to "not judge" them as bad. Not-judging only masks a judgment; it doesn't replace it. Nope, the key to learning from mistakes is to judge them positively. Only then can you take full advantage of the learning opportunity.

You might think, "Well, if I don't judge the mistake as bad, what's to keep me from doing it again or making even more mistakes?"

First of all, judging a mistake as "bad" doesn't provide a lock on not doing it again. You may go into mistake-denial and try not to see it as a mistake or you may avoid working to correct it because each time you think about it you get all anxious or queazy. Second, judging it as good let's you see it as it is: a missed note, an overlooked calculation, a too-high cooking temperature, or an overworked triceps muscle. It's not a blight on your reputation or a negative mark on your permanent record. It doesn't mean that you suck or that you'll never get it. It's just a mistake.

That's the starting point. The next is the critical test of your positive judgment. Slowly review what you did with clarity and specificity. Record your rehearsal and then listen to the recording with no reverb, no pitch correction and no time correction. Take a bite of that meatloaf without ketchup, tabasco or mayonaise. Look at yourself naked in the mirror with all the lights on.

The Cringe Factor
If you find yourself cringing, then guess what? That negative judgement that you replaced with a positive one: it's back! Fact is, you're likely not going to replace the negative with the positive in the abstract. You'll only get there by deciding to judge positively whatever you've done, and then practicing judging it positively by looking at it straight-on with no filters until there's not an inkling of cringe.

Once you've done that (it may take a bit of practice and you may end up working though all sorts of issues you never knew about or acknowledged), you'll find that you have wonderful teachers lurking around pretty much everything you do. I know I do.

The crazy part is that it's the people who are most self-assured and confident that are most open to seeing their mistakes. Someone who thinks that whatever she does is great (really thinks it, not feigns it or hides behind it) sees her mistakes before someone who thinks that everything she does is awful. Go figure.

Of course, there's an alternative to learning from your mistakes. Never try anything you don't already know how to do well and surround yourself with people who can't tell the difference or would never point it out. But hey, what fun would that be.

Happy Tuesday,

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