Why it is okay to make a mistake

Mistakes. You know its that one thing that they tell you to never do. Every test you are docked a point for every mistake that you make, and every time at work you make a mistake you get one step closer to being fired. Yet, are mistakes really a bad thing? And is being perfect all the time truly a good thing?

I was at the Harker Commencement Ceremony (Also known as Graduation) for this year’s graduating class. During the ceremonies, they brought on stage this guest speaker that spoke about mistakes, specifically what it meant for something to be a mistake. He got me thinking: What exactly makes something a mistake? and When do people make mistakes? 

So lets tackle the first question first: What exactly makes something a mistake? Well, what is a mistake? At a fundamental level, a mistake is just something that someone declared to be an inept action or statement. That someone could be you, it could be your friend, or it could be your parents. When that someone declares your action to be incorrect, you feel that you have made a mistake. So, by that logic, a mistake is just a social mistake, but is it still a mistake personally for you? At a slightly deeper level, a mistake has negative social consequences. We learned in high school, middle school, and all of education through the way that grades work that every action has consequences. If you study hard for an exam, you get good grades. If you don’t, you get bad grades. This simple reward system trains our mind to focus on discovering techniques that keep the positive reinforcements coming. This system rewards us for finding ways to increase the number of positive consequences that come in the short run, and minimize the amount of negative consequences. Yet, is this really the right way to think about a mistake

In my opinion, a mistake is a nonexistent thing. How does a baby learn what is right and what is wrong? The baby tries something and discovers that something leads to reward, and that other actions lead to punishment. But the baby never bothers to test whether five years later that one quality or action that initially led to punishment still leads to punishment. Its a societal inhibitor that limits our actions. A mistake is not challenging those assumptions, is not challenging what society considers right and wrong. That same baby learns from the reaction, and improves his standing in the world through learning. We, as humans who are hopefully not still babies (maybe babies at heart), need to learn to learn like a baby, and improve our world standing through learning. While the baby learns that one action leads to punishment when something goes wrong and continues to try other things, the same baby stops trying when it sees reward. The reward prevents creativity, prevents us from expanding our realm of knowledge, all because of the fear of returning to punishment. Fear is the only mistake that we can make. We need to challenge what is considered a mistake, we need to understand why something is a mistake, and by virtue of doing this, committing the mistake will no longer have been a mistake. Instead, it will have transfixed itself into an opportunity to open new doors and learn new facets of life.

Let us now consider the second question: When do people make mistakes? People make mistakes most commonly when they are trying things that are out of their comfort zone. When I was in high school, I played baseball for my high school team. I had played baseball before in middle and elementary school, but never had I played infield. When I got to high school, I played short stop and 2nd base. I was deathly scared of making a mistake and letting my team down. That fear forced me to play conservatively and in short never truly be any better than I was when I walked in. I never improved because I never bothered to go beyond, and will fully explore the new challenge, because I was never willing to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. 

When I joined Jazz Band in High School, I had never played Saxophone before. Initially, I was struck down with fear, and I refused to play. If you don’t make any noise than how can you make a mistake right? Seemed like the better path to go down, the path that led to the least failure. But, this path also led me to little improvement. After a year of doing practically nothing, my band teacher forced me to play, forced me to go beyond my comfort zone. I started making mistakes left, right, and center. My instrument was out of tune, I was off beat, and I often hit the wrong notes. But, with each mistake that was made because I reached outside my comfort zone, with each trip and fall, I was able to get back up, look at the gash, learn from my mistakes, and grow because of it. I learned how to play saxophone not from the books, but from all the mistakes I made. We make mistakes when we are doing something we don’t know. To expand our horizons we neeeed mistakes. Mistakes have gotten a bad rap because of our stupid education incentive system, but really mistakes are your golden ticket to expanding into a new area. Mistakes are the best way to understand something deeply. An expert in the field is one who has lost a few fingers over the topic (figuratively of course). An expert is not someone who walked through everything without a scratch. That would just be a person who hadn’t tried enough in the topic.

I’ll leave you with this last message that my band teacher once said: “Be willing to scratch your knees. Don’t be afraid!”

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