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Mistakes as Allies

creativity Mar 06, 2020

Mistakes! Monsters in my worlds of creating, teaching and performing. The number one fear I hear from creatives is “What if I make a mistake?” Not “what if I don’t sound expressive?” Not “what if I don’t sound interesting?” No: mistakes dominate as the greatest fear. And I completely relate. I gave up my entire music career for four years due to mistake-phobia.

It’s strange, because as humans, we’re born problem-solvers. We’re always looking to fix and improve things. Problem-solving is the basis of our innovation and evolution: it’s creativity and life-affirmation in action, from the pianoforte to record lifespans.

Sometimes we humans are accused of “negativity bias.” We look for problems without appreciating what actually is working. We get stressed out as a result. But here the thing; problem-solving isn’t inherently negative. What is negative is our fear of making mistakes, our “complete embarrassment” when do we goof up as Olivia W. puts it, and our tendency to flee the scene after a mistake (literally or metaphorically.) “I hate to make mistakes in anything, and often feel paralyzed when I feel I don't know the 'rules' on how things are supposed to be done” shares Janet D.

Yet mistakes are actually our allies. If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not learning. We’re simply retreading familiar ground or experiencing a fluke.

What’s so great about mistakes? Let me count the ways:

  • Mistakes help us grow by showing exactly where we can improve.
  • Mistakes invite us to look deeply, stoking insight and creativity.
  • Mistakes humble the ego so that our work takes on universal resonance.
  • Mistakes expose perfection is an illusion, helping us bypass the perfectionism (so strongly associated with anxiety and depression).
  • Mistakes give you context, fostering gratitude when things actually go smoothly.
  • Mistakes help us strive, creating ‘flow,’ as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out: we need to work close to our edge to experience flow. If something is too easy, we don’t feel fulfilled, dismiss it as a fluke, or simply find it too easy and lose interest altogether.
  • And this one is huge: surviving mistakes grows your resilience - no small matter in today’s challenging world!

Given the many benefits of mistakes, why do we fear them? As young children we goof up with abandon, so it doesn’t appear this extreme fear is inborn. The reasons behind our fear are too numerous for the scope of this article, but one key factor is how we’re corrected upon mistake-making. Scolding and shaming versus capitalizing on mistakes as learning opportunities brings lasting negative impact. We even internalize this shame to the point of castigating ourselves, as Janet H. shares: “Between my perfectionist mother and the nuns using their long blackboard pointers to whack children who gave wrong answers, my child assumption that mistakes could be fatal came pretty naturally. It took a lot of sorting out as an adult to see that all of none of my mistakes were capital criminal offenses.”

So, how to turn all this around and reclaim mistakes as our allies?

First, put mistakes into perspective. Remember the big picture of why you’re doing your endeavor.

Are you lovingly cooking a meal for friends with the purpose of enjoying each others’ company? Then don’t worry if you overdressed the salad, that’s a footnote at best. Focus on your purpose instead: community, generosity and sustenance.

Secondly, discern rather than judge. When we discern, we ask “why did this mistake happen? And what can I do to solve it?”

No drama, no stress, no fear. Instead, inquiry and action. Judgment, in contrast, makes statements like “that was bad”: problem-solving comes to a screeching halt. This is especially sad since according to Dan Coyle’s research, we only have a split second to recognize mistakes and act on them. Let’s not miss these powerful learning and creativity opportunities!

Where to start in answering those discerning questions of “why did this mistake happen? And what can I do to solve it?” I like to use what I call the Five Essential Elements of daily practice, which are applicable to any kind of life-engagement. Having these Five Essential Elements on hand instantly gives you somewhere to start – most helpful after that initial jolt of mistake-making. Briefly, the Essential Elements are:

  • Technique (practical solutions)
  • Artistry (expressive solutions)
  • Learning (intellectual solutions)
  • Inspiration (motivational solutions)
  • Community - reach out for help from others!

As an example of this in action for Community, share your mistakes with others. Take the shame out of mistakes. Demystify them. People consistently assume others make fewer mistakes than they actually do. No wonder, as we often try to hide our gaffs! But we have little reason to hide, as Carol K. affirms: “I have discovered how forgiving others are of my mistakes. I hear every little thing and flaws are magnified in my perception. However others either don't notice little errors or think they lend authenticity.”

Jennifer R. agrees: “I am much more comfortable with making mistakes now, on the harp and in the realization that I don't have to be perfect in life either. People are not judging me as I thought they were and it takes so much pressure off! (self-imposed pressure) In the bigger scheme of things I am really enjoying being more authentic as a musician and as a person. It brings joy to me and others and when I play for the healing clinics. I just get the feedback that it adds so much to the healing experience.”

Give people a chance to be supportive - listen to this sweet Community conversation about handling musical mistakes:

Amelia G: “Now, when I make a "mistake," I turn it into an improv!”

Jennifer K: “Oh me too! Love it, love the freedom of just not worrying about it!”

Sarah G: “I did that at a gig just tonight! Memory slip! No big deal, just vamp on a chord for a rest.”

When we lay aside judging others’ mistakes, we break the cycle of fear. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean anything goes and we won’t grow creatively: again, discern rather than judge. Our discernment questions: Is that thing working or not? Why, and what can we do about it? Using discernment, we cultivate vast creativity, innovation, expression and yes, excellence if that is our intention.

Ultimately, learning and creativity aren’t linear. Instead, they move as fractals, spiraling and “curving back within myself, I create again and again,” as the Bhagavad Gita says. A huge setback may – and often does - catapult you to whole new levels of discovery and learning. Reclaim mistakes! You’re stretching and growing. Reframe mistakes as drafts, “missed-takes” as Olivia W. calls them. Yes, mistakes are mighty allies in expressing your grand life purpose, spiraling you up to new heights of learning and creativity!


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