Tag Archives: mistakes

Making Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Having the freedom to make mistakes is essential to learning, growing, studying, creating and exploring. We hold spaces where people can develop if we allow them to mess up with no fear of blame or shame. It’s not a good idea to make people responsible for anything important when they have yet to learn how things work!

Admitting mistakes can feel painful. However, it’s a really good thing to be able to do. Being able to appreciate someone taking the time to correct and inform you is a blessing. Being able to own errors so as to know more and do better is enabling. 

Humiliating knock backs teach people not to take risks. It can be especially hard on children, who learn not to voice their opinions, and not to try things. If you require people to be perfect, most of them will never even dare to have a try. No one does things perfectly from the outset. It has to be ok to be wrong, inept, ineffective, inaccurate and so forth when you start out.

However, for this to be possible, it helps to have that treated supportively by others. It’s not good to humiliate people for not knowing things. It’s best to assume ignorance rather than malice – especially when you’re seeing errors for the first time. It is totally possible to correct someone without knocking them down – and if it’s done with respect, then the person being corrected is more likely to want to take the new information onboard.

It’s also worth asking whether a person is wrong, or simply different. Is there a right answer there? Is there only one acceptable way of doing things? Might there be reasons for what you’re seeing? Who actually knows what’s going on here? If you’re in a situation where you only have a superficial grasp of things, it’s well worth being alert to the possibility that you might be the one who needs to learn. Are you making assumptions about the other person based on race, gender presentation, age, class, disability or apparent education level? Take a moment to consider those assumptions if you have them. 

If it turns out that you’ve tried to correct someone who knew more than you, then you get to go round this loop from the other side. Will you be gracious in the lesson, or will you double down? We all make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with making an innocent mistake because you didn’t have the right information. It’s what we do next that really defines who we are.

Warning: contains naval gazing

I lost most of yesterday afternoon and evening to a welling up of pain. It’s left me feeling sore and disorientated today. I’m in a place of unpretty introspection. It isn’t what other people do that haunts me, it is the fear of having got it wrong, of not having given enough when it was needed, not being able to offer a sufficiently tolerant and open heart, not being able to take the knocks. I’m a creature of finite resource, no kind of saint, and alert to the ways in which I could have done a better job. Yesterday I was caught in a web of ghosts and mistakes, trying to figure out where I could have done better, in the hopes of not repeating any of it.

I’m fascinated by people who shrug of mistakes and failures, of any magnitude, and move on. I’ve encountered a few folk down the years who were remarkably untroubled by their errors of judgement and acts of unintended cruelty. I’ve met people who genuinely didn’t seem to care when they caused pain. I have noticed an interesting discrepancy though, because the people who feel they should be able to shrug off their mistakes and move on seldom take the same attitude when they feel hurt. If they are suffering, it matters and needs taking seriously. It has also been my experience that people who make less fuss about their own discomfort are often more compassionate when other people are hurting.

I’ve learned the painful way that guilt and regret are the things I am least able to bear. Being hurt by someone else is as nothing compared to what I carry over mistakes I cannot fix, things I cannot undo, or unsay. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way. Poor judgement calls, misplaced expectation, dodgy interpretation… Nothing a person would wind up in court for, just regular human failure born of not seeing clearly, not knowing myself well enough, not getting it right. I pick over these like a scavenger picking bones. If there is a means to put right, I’ll try and do it. At least I can learn, with a view to making new and different mistakes next time.

My most problematic reoccurring mistake goes like this: I accept people as they present themselves, so I fall foul of miss-selling. There are qualities I’m drawn to, and if someone fakes those, I can be suckered in. The bitterness that comes from realising it was all pretend, is horrible. I find it hard to forgive in those circumstances, but I realise it may often be the case that people do not realise they are faking it. They have learned the language of passion and intensity. They’ve learned what sounds dramatic, poetic, inspired and wild. They like the image. Perhaps they do not realise that all they have is a shiny surface. The shock of realising they do not know how to live what they are voicing cannot be comfortable for some of them. The ease with which the shrugging and walking away often follows though, suggests to me that they mostly do not care. They only ever wanted to look the part.

How I let myself get into one of these again? How was I bewitched by the surface appearance, by an illusion of authenticity? Is there some magical way of discerning between people who truly speak from the heart, and people who know how to sound that way? I haven’t found it yet. Do I become cynical and mistrustful, and keep at a distance those who do come into my life open hearted, honest and full of integrity, so as to also keep away the players of games? I oscillate. There are days (yesterday was one such) when I feel no confidence in my ability to relate to people at all, and the call of hermitude is strong. But there are those few souls who were not faking, who have brought depth and wonder into my life, and I would not have that if I’d carefully insisted on keeping everyone at arm’s length.

I’ve been told that I expect too much of people. I have unreasonably high standards, am demanding and unfair. I expect so much that I set people up to fail; they can never be enough to meet my outrageous demands. I’ve looked long and hard at those accusations over a lot of years. There is some truth in it. I can be decidedly all or nothing. I do ask a lot, but I ask no more of others than I ask of myself. Just occasionally, I find someone who isn’t affronted by how I am, someone who does not disappoint, or turn out to be more hot air than substance. In the meantime, what I get is the guilt of feeling that my being let down is a measure of my unreasonableness. The uncomfortable sense that I ask too much and judge too harshly, and that if only I could seek for less, I could enjoy the easy, non-committal, shrug off the mistakes approach of others. I would have to be someone else. Still, there are losses that I grieve, and mistakes that haunt me.

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.

The Emperor’s Old Clothes

If the emperor had woken up the following day and realised that perhaps clothing invisible to the stupid wasn’t a good way to go, he might have acknowledged the mistake and got in with his life. Making mistakes is inevitable for humans. We all do it. Lack of experience, not having the right information, miscalculating, and a host of other reasonably honourable, natural shortcomings can result in getting things wrong.

One answer at this point, emperor-style, is to just insist that you are right, and require everyone else to go along with the farce. Real life dictatorships do this kind of thing, I believe. But yesterday I listened on the news to the story of someone who had failed to spot rickets in a baby who consequently died. The parents were accused of murder, and went through 2 years of total hell. Other experts think the rickets evidence was there to be seen. But the person who made the mistake is in court saying that the evidence isn’t there. When people acknowledge error, there is scope for learning. Other lives can be saved. Future suffering can be reduced, or avoided.

It takes courage to admit a mistake, especially with the current blame and litigation culture. It would be healthier to encourage people to own up. It would also be good if we could collectively acknowledge the idea that people do make mistakes. And not just ordinary people, but professionals and experts. Professionals misdiagnose, misjudge, underestimate, overestimate, and all the rest of it. Professional people are not magically infallible, and yet I’ve run into a few who will answer any query or challenge with an assertion that their professional status means they must, by definition, be right. This kind of arrogance is incredibly dangerous. A person who thinks they know it all already does not listen properly or consider the evidence. Not least, they will never be able to identify and properly handle a situation they have not encountered before. New things do happen. New diseases evolve. New technology creates new crimes, and so forth.

The sooner a mistake is recognised, the easier it is to get things back on track. It may seem like losing face, but the temporary humiliation is worth enduring. It’s so much better than what happens when you have to tune out whole swathes of evidence, or refuse to look at anything that doesn’t fit. The more you try to cover for a mistake, the more likely you are to compound it, adding to it with lies and misdirection, and possibly a few rounds of self delusion for good measure. Now you aren’t holding a cloth that doesn’t exist, you’re walking about in public with no clothes on. And really, by that stage it doesn’t matter what you want people to believe, they know they can see your arse, and not a one of them is ever going to take you seriously again.

Mistakes are inevitable to the learning process. If it isn’t acceptable to get things wrong, then it isn’t possible to learn or experiment. Giving permission to yourself, and to others, to be imperfect, is really useful and allows amazing things to happen. It enables the new bard to stand up and have a go. It enables the druid student to call to the spirits of place and not feel awful that their voice quavered a bit and the words weren’t quite perfect. Accepting mistakes opens the way to compassion and greater mutual tolerance. It turns us away from blame and anger, towards cooperation and getting problems solved. It allows us not just to be human, but to be the best kinds of humans we can imagine ourselves being.

Yes, I have made mistakes.

Does my bottom look big in this?