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Wired for Struggle – the Value of Making Mistakes

Posted on: 18th August 2017

Mistakes. Struggles. Errors. Wrong answers. Failures. Poor scores. Misunderstandings. Shortcomings. Inadequacies. Incorrect paths. Weaknesses. These all get a very bad rap in a perfectionistic society. One obsessed with measurement, conforming to norms, dictating mediocrity. A society that has forgotten that the best lessons come from mistakes. One that ignores the significance of imperfect outliers. One that prefers to be blind to the weaknesses of geniuses.

Embracing Mistakes

I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t make a mistake once only. I need to make the same mistake over and over again to be sure it doesn’t work before I can fully change. I’m stubborn. I have blind spots. But I’m growing. I’m tackling life head on. Less and less hindered by perfection. More and more embracing mistakes as crucial life lessons. Seeing weaknesses as proof of unique strengths. Believing messiness is evidence of life. Life in a wild, imperfect, unfinished world of opportunity and struggle.

The Deception of Perfectionism

I was shocked by something that emerged in a self-leadership class. I had given a case study assignment to cement the learning of a great developmental concept. During the debrief, some of the participants were particularly strong in pressing for their answers to be correct for one of the questions. I passionately engaged in the debate viewing it as an excellent opportunity to deepen the finer points of the lesson.

I discovered that whilst they eventually agreed with the textbook solution, they weren’t done with the debate. They wanted the questions changed and the case expanded. They felt cheated. When asked why. Their concern was that their workbooks now recorded less than perfect scores. They could not accept this! I explained that for me it was not a test but a learning exercise and that their arguments had intensified the understanding for all of us. They still weren’t satisfied. I then told them to award themselves full marks because their debating had produced immense learning!

How about Excellence?

The next day I spent time on the damage from competitive perfectionism in learning and growth. The saying: “get it right first time” is not helpful when our best learning comes from doing and trying. Perfectionism places the focus on what is wrong instead of what is right – it seeks to conform to not being wrong. It limits creativity.

Excellence, by contrast is built on strengths. Embracing the best and making it better. Building incredible outside the box results. Fastidiousness does not discern importance or meaning, it simply tries to eliminate error, it can be consumed by nit-picking. Greatness is all about meaning, purpose, significance, strengths and learning. Competitiveness can seek to hide the error, distinction wants it fully exploited for all its lessons, clarity, and value.

When asked if some of our best lessons don’t perhaps emerge out of our mistakes, the whole group agreed, including those who had been so vociferous the previous day…

“I like messy people; those who don’t fit in a box or stay between the lines, but whose integrity is greater than any rule book and loyalty is thicker than blood.”

Delighting in the Messiness of Life

Jim Wern says: “I like messy people; those who don’t fit in a box or stay between the lines, but whose integrity is greater than any rule book and loyalty is thicker than blood.” Me too. This is the sort of person I would like to be. Someone who is embracing the lessons in the struggle of life. Whose character and maturity have been developed in battle. Who acknowledges that we are wired for the wildness. Someone who makes no pretence of arrival.

“If you banish the dragons, you banish the hero’s!”

As life throws us curve balls, instead of responding in fear, how about we respond in wonder – seeking meaning and growth? I just watched a TED talk where Andrew Solomon said: “If you banish the dragons, you banish the hero’s!” Indeed we need struggle. We require imperfection. We thrive in a world where the job is not yet done. Where the freedoms are not yet won. We need these battles. They are what make us who we are.

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