Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mistakes can be miracles

Dedicated to Donna Ricci

I want you to play a word game with me. Look at the word, "mistakes." Break it apart: Mis-takes. Miss takes. I made a miss take. I missed the take on reality. I took something else for reality that was off the mark. But... why do we all believe that this is inherently bad? Why is a mistake a mark of failure? It isn't necessarily. I have made several mistake in the kitchen that turned out *delicious* and I discovered a new fantastic recipe as a result, that I would not have found otherwise had I not erred. Mistakes aren't always bad. They can be beautiful too. They can be miracles.

You know the story... The scientist accidently left the petri dishes out overnight, uncovered, and mold started growing in them. But lo and behold, the mold was killing what the scientist had been cultivating in those dishes. This was a miracle discovery!!! This was the accident that led to the discovery of antibiotics. The scientist was Alexander Fleming.

We're taught a very bad lesson, that we learn very well, early on in school. And that is mistakes are failure, weakness, and to be avoided at all costs. But I'll let you in on a secret. Our school system wasn't designed to help kids learn. It was to train kids for the dull and boring, repetitive tasks that were necessary for factory jobs. That's right. Our school was actually designed to make kids like machines. Our schools are designed to make kids not think. They're designed to make kids perform. And for ideal performance, we ask kids to be perfect.

This is not only unrealistic and undesirable, it's completely unnecessary too. We use machines to do our dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. If we need the action to be perfect every time, we use a machine to do that. If it's the same circumstance every time and we need that repeated over and over again, we use a machine. If we need the process to be extremely efficient, fast, safe, and so forth, we use a machine. We automate, and we have been automating since before the Roman Empire.

Why are we teaching our kids from an early, early age that getting things wrong is bad? That's something that simply isn't true! We're asking them to be inhuman when we're teaching them wrong is bad. "1200 years before Descartes said his famous thing about "I think therefore I am," this guy, St. Augustine, sat down and wrote: "Fallor ergo sum." I err, therefore I am. ... The miracle of our mind is not that we can see the world as it is. It's that we can see the world how it isn't." (Kathryn Schulz - On Being Wrong)

The miracle of mistakes is that it leads us to a place we weren't aiming on going. Mistakes lead us out of our known world and thrust us into discovery. Mistakes take us to a place we didn't volunteer to go, but not necessarily to a place we wouldn't choose to go if we knew about it. If we always stayed in our safe bubble of "what we know to be true," we'd never make any discoveries! If we never lost our way, we'd never find new places. If we never had accidents, we'd never know what's possible.

T'ain't nothin' in this world good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

We are dangerously in love with this idea of Rightness. We use our idea of Rightness as justification to take terrible actions against other people. "I'm right. You must do things my way." We use it to justify force. We use it to justify discrimination. We use it to justify taking money and property from one person or group and giving it to another person or group. Every human atrocity can be traced back to some jerk who thought only s/he was right and managed to get enough power to start inflicting that "rightness" on others.

Today, I'm trying to embrace my mistakes. I screwed up in the kitchen earlier today. I went to go fix my mistake and than I thought, No... I'm going to let this mistake happen. I'm going to see what's on the other side of me doing it this way today. I don't know that what I'm about to do is bad. So why not try it? The results weren't "fantastic," like some of my kitchen mistakes. But it was still delicious! I gave it a 3 out of 5 stars.

And that's the other thing: when I let go and relax into my mistakes, I don't give myself such a hard time about them. I don't beat myself over the head like I'm a bad person for making the mistake. I worry less about expectations and outcomes. It's exploration and experimentation time. It can be scary, sure! It's new. Scary can be part of that package. But so can thrilling. And it's dangerous to head out into the wilderness... out into Here There Be Dragons land. It reminds me of the Modest Mouse song, Dashboard: Oh it would have been, could have been, worse than you could ever know. But no one got anywhere by sitting at home on the couch.

Sometimes, those mistakes even keep us safe. Mistakes let us know that we've hit out limit. That we need to be careful. That the situation is more than we thought it was. One of the lessons I learned from watching Deadliest Catch is that "13. Not being cut out for the job isn't a bad thing." (me, Everything I needed to know I learned from Baring Sea fisherman..., contains language not suitable for work) Being a baring sea fisherman can kill you. When mistakes are made and recognized early, we may be able to avoid a situation where we'd really be beyond our depth (pun intended).

We need to end our love affair with Rightness. We need to pay more positive attention to Mistakes. If we do this, we will not only learn more, but we will feel better about it while doing it. What inspired this post was I said on my Facebook page that I was heavily medicated and no longer responsible for what I say. A friend I really admire made the comment, "*hits refresh repeatedly* Oh this should be good." Suddenly I felt intimidated! I was in the spotlight! And I thought, *EEP!* I got to mind my P's and Q's! But then I was all, No... that's the whole point, silly. Your mistakes are going to be funny & unusual. Go with it!! This post is dedicated to her.


  1. What a delightful commentary on mistakes! I will see my own differently from now on. Thanks. I just found your blog and plan to come back, keep up the good work.