The importance of messing it up

Success is not a great teacher. Oh, it’s very pleasing when everything goes smoothly and well. It can be a great sop to self esteem. The ritual that runs perfectly. The project that finishes without hiccup or error. That kind of success can encourage us to feel perhaps more competent and knowledgeable than we really are. Mostly that’s not a problem, although it can mean when we get into trouble, we’re even less prepared for it. It’s not always obvious with success as to why, exactly, it went right. Often, we take success at face value, not analysing why we got it. Failures tend to make us think more. It’s important to consider both.

Mistakes invite consideration. We tend to want to know where it went wrong or why it fell over, and from this, we learn. We also learn about what matters to us. It’s very hard to do anything if you aren’t prepared to risk error. If you don’t have the space to mess up now and then, how can you move out of you comfort zone? If you aren’t allowed, by yourself or others, to be wrong once in a while, or to make mistakes, then where is the scope for growth? I think culturally we push too hard, we don’t give people enough learning spaces, we don’t accept fallibility enough. It’s not just human to make mistakes, it is necessary.

I gather from what psychology I’ve studied that we have a locus of responsibility that we attribute things to in any given situation. Some people view themselves as all powerful, some as entirely powerless. An event happens, and we see the win as entirely of our making, or as pure luck. We get knocked down by life, and we see it as our fault, or as inexplicable misfortune. Of course you can pick and mix. The person able to see every success as proof of their own skill, genius and entitlement, and every setback as pure fluke, will be very happy in themselves, although not well connected to the rest of reality. The person who sees every success as just luck and every failure as deserved will spend their days miserable, and also will be out of touch with reality. In practice all that comes to us, for good and ill, will be a mix of things of our making, and not of our making. Anyone who wants a meaningful relationship with reality needs a nuanced approach to this, not an assumption.

How we understand our mistakes is just as important as what we do with them. If it’s never your fault, then you will never bother to learn or try to change. If you are unassailably perfect, then you have to look for reasons outside, the external locus of responsibility an essential to maintaining your illusions. And equally, if you don’t think you are capable of being better, or getting it right, or you believe the gods are going to punish you no matter what you do then there’s still no reason to bother. Failure does not have to be viewed as punishment or divine judgement. It doesn’t have to be viewed as a one shot deal, either. Most mistakes can be done over. So long as nobody died, it’s usually not insurmountable. Messing up once does not mean it’s pointless to try again. It takes courage to try again, to risk further humiliations, further hard lessons about the limits of our understanding and ability. The person who doesn’t risk those blows will never be more than they currently are. They won’t let themselves.

In Druidry this matters a great deal. Those new to ritual need the opportunity to make mistakes, to fluff lines, forget running orders and make all the errors of learners. If there’s no humiliation, no punishment, just encouragement, then there is room to grow. And for anyone leading, there needs to be a sense that perfection is not called for. Perfection in ritual is not possible, the person who has to guard against mistakes will never be as open to the awen, or the flow of the ritual. Fear of failure cuts you off from so many things. In the Bard path, room to mess up is vital. That first, nervous public performance will not be as good as you wanted it to be. They never are. Voices wobble, sweating fingers slide on strings, chords are stumbled over, words forgotten. The two seconds of pause between verses will be an eternity of hell your audience probably doesn’t even notice. But if at this point you say ‘I am a failure’ you’ll not do it again. All the great bards who share their skills at rituals started out the same way, and all of them, at some point, will have messed up in public. It is an unavoidable, and necessary part of the path.

Messing up keeps us human. It keeps us realistic about our less than godlike natures. The fear of messing up keeps us working, practicing, striving. The willingness to mess up keeps us experimenting, creating, and testing the boundaries.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

2 responses to “The importance of messing it up

  • gfenton

    I remember a sketch with Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, where at the end, Peter Cook (as Sir Arthur Strebe -Greebling) says, “Yes, I have learned from my mistakes. And I’m confident that, given my time over again, I could repeat them exactly!”

  • Alex Jones

    I find that people learn more from their mistakes than if they get it right first time.

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