Two Things To Remember When You Make a Mistake

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"Do not fear mistakes; there are none."

-- Miles Davis

My creative writing professor began our syllabus for Advanced Fiction Writing last spring with that quote, probably to encourage us to let our creative juices run rampant.  If you want to write a story but only ever tweak the first paragraph until it's perfect, you won't get any farther along than that.  At some point you have to plunge forward, realizing that it's better policy to revise once you have the bones of what you want to say already sketched out, and recognizing that you will never have a "perfect" product, because there are always things you can alter, and art, especially, is subjective. 

On a creative level, I'm slowly coming to terms with this.  Though my inner perfectionist would still like to know I'm doing it perfectly. 

Of course, there are several other arenas in which mistakes come to do battle against your fragile ego, and these places don't feel so forgiving because the standards for right and wrong are more clearly defined.  I'm not talking about moral questions of right and wrong -- that would open up a philosophical can of worms the scope of this post is definitely not equipped to handle.  I'm talking about your first day on a new job, for example, or embarking on a new hobby, or if you're a student, a new class you're writing for when you haven't yet figured out what the teacher is looking for.  I'm talking about any situation, new (or maybe even old, something you've been at for a while, since you don't ever really grow immune to making mistakes) where you're bound to mess up before or even as you succeed, and someone is very likely to point that out to you.

The default advice here is typically, "Don't take it personally.  Use it as a chance to improve, an opportunity for growth."

Okay... but then why do we fear mistakes and failure so much?  There's nothing scary about a learning opportunity, if that's all it is.  So by that token, we shouldn't let mistakes bother us.

But here's the thing:

We don't fear mistakes.  We fear guilt and shame.  We fear feeling small and insignificant and inadequate.  And these are the all too common byproducts of mistakes.  Because while our culture lauds mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, rarely do I see them actually handled as such.  Instead, I see grimaces and eye rolls.  I hear sighs, and ripples of testiness beneath hasty choruses of "It's okay, it's okay!"  We shoulder these reactions and our backs nearly break under the assumption that we're no good because of some unintentional act we committed when we didn't know any better.

So let's get a couple of things straight right now:

1.  You are not your mistakes.

You are human, a fact which guarantees you intrinsic worth -- worth that is not dependent on a handful of mistakes, worth that is the very essence of who you are.  A favorite quote of mine concerning this point comes from Fr. Gregory Boyle, whose memoir Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion, is one I would highly recommend.  In referencing the oft-quoted Bible passage in which Jesus says that we are "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14),  Fr. Boyle writes:

"I like even more what Jesus doesn't say.  He does not say, 'One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you'll be light.'  He doesn't say 'If you play by the rules, cross your T's and dot your I's, then maybe you'll become light.'  No.  He says, straight out, 'You are light.'  It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it."

So remember that you are light, that your mistakes do not define you, and that your soul is beautiful.

2.  It is actually impossible to know what someone else is thinking.

Unless they tell you.  But that's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about those times when we're having a conversation with someone we've only just met, for example, and we're watching their facial expressions closely, and something in the way they're maybe ever-so-slightly turning their mouth down at the corners, or the shortness we sense in their words when they address us, or the way they raise their eyebrows out of what we assume is skepticism... something in all of this makes us think they don't like us.  That we've inadvertently said or done something to offend.

Or a supervisor at work rubs their fingers over their frazzled brow when you haven't yet learned company protocol and do something incorrectly on your first day... or when you make an accidental blunder on your sixth month in.  You assume that means they're mad at you, or frustrated with you.

We are only ever given access to our own internal monologues, and the business of guessing what other people are thinking can cause an unnecessary amount of stress.  Of course, it's so much easier to say we shouldn't concern ourselves with what other people think, and that we're wasting our time because we'll never know for sure, than it is to actually apply this bit of wisdom to our lives.  But I think about this and I can't help but wonder... why?  Why would we make things more difficult and miserable for ourselves by imagining how negatively another might perceive us, when it would be so much easier to train our own minds to think positively, or to try empathizing with others instead?  To imagine that perhaps the reason for a person's shortness of temper has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with a family member's illness, or car troubles, or any number of other things that can stress someone out?  Or to remind yourself of point 1 above, that mistakes happen but you'll move on because you are a spectacularly radiant human being. 

Let's try to be a little kinder to ourselves, okay?  Mistakes are mistakes.  They're not you.  :)


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