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The Incredible Value of Making Mistakes

During the summer of 1972 I worked as a camp counselor for the YMCA Camp Rogers in the Uinta Mountains of Utah. Supervising a cabin-full of 8 and 9 year old boys each week, I acquired some interesting experiences and some valuable life lessons, including skills that eventually helped me become a good parent.

One of the experiences that has really stuck with me concerns a boy I'll call Daniel. In his eyes, Daniel could do no wrong. Anything that went wrong was always the fault of someone or something else.

For instance, we went camping by this little lake high in the mountains one day, taking the camp's rowboat with us. Daniel was in a boat, out on the lake, with several other boys. He was on one oar, and another boy was handling the other oar. The boat was going in circles. All the other boys were demanding Daniel relinquish the oar because it was obvious that he was not using the oar correctly. Daniel was refusing, because he "knew how to use an oar" and it was the other boy who was doing it incorrectly.

From the shore, I told Daniel that he had to give up the oar to another boy, which he reluctantly did. When the switch was made, the two boys manning the oars propelled the small craft successfully back to the shore. When they all got out of the boat, I tried very patiently to tell Daniel that he wasn't using the oar correctly and that I'd be happy to show him how to do it correctly. Even though the other boys had managed to work the boat correctly, he still insisted that he knew how to do it right, and that they were all wrong.

A short time later, I heard someone yelling on the lake. I ran down to the shore and there was Daniel, in a boat, all by himself. The boat was going in circles as he continued to incorrectly work the oars. He yelled to me, "There's something wrong with this boat." Knowing it was pointless in trying to explain to him how to correctly work the oars, I jumped in the lake and swam to the boat, climbed in, took over the oars and brought the boat back to shore. A small group of boys, who had gathered at the shore to watch the spectacle, climbed into the boat with us.

"There is nothing wrong with the boat," I told Daniel, "You just have to know how to work the oars correctly. Watch." I turned the boat towards the center of the lake and started oaring as hard as I could, making a beeline for the center of the lake. Once I arrived at the center of the lake I turned to Daniel and said, "You see, the boat works perfectly. All you have to do is know how to oar properly." I was hoping that he would see that he didn't know how to use the oars correctly and allow me to teach him the right way.

Daniel replied, "Well, there was something wrong with the boat when I was in it, because I know how to row and it didn't work right for me."

During the week we were together I never did manage to convince Daniel that there was anything I could teach him. Of course, I was mature enough to realize that his continual need to assure me that nothing he did was ever wrong must have come from some family dynamic which caused him to be afraid of being wrong.
We could chock Daniel's attitude up to his age, saying it was simply immaturity. However, most children are actually very teachable and easily able to admit mistakes. The fact is, as most people grow older, they become more like Daniel. So, I think it would be more correct to say that Daniel was developing the an adult-like rigidity at a very early age.

Mistakes are Part of the Learning Process

We are not born into this world afraid of making mistakes. If we were, we would never be able to learn anything, because mistakes are a part of any learning process. I acquired this understanding in an experimental class in learning and teaching I attended during my final semester of college.

One of the concepts we discussed in this class was that everyone is both a learner and a teacher. This means that everyone we meet has the potential to teach us something. To experience this, one of our assignments was to apprentice ourselves to a child under the age of two for one hour and find something the child could teach us. My oldest daughter was 10 months old at the time, so I decided to apprentice myself to her.

During the hour I spent with her, all she wanted to do was have me help her with learning to walk. So, that's what I did, I helped her. What I observed was the number of times she fell down in this process, and how difficult it is to master the skill of walking. I realized that none of us walk or talk correctly the first time we try. However, our parents are so excited by our efforts they do nothing but encourage us. "Come to daddy. You can do it. That's right." This is how we talk.

No one has to goad us into trying either. As children we wanted to learn. We were emotional sponges, soaking up information from our environment and imitating what we observed on a constant basis. I realized that if I wanted to be a good learner, I had to become like a little child and get over my fear of making mistakes when I tried something new. Doing this has really helped me master a lot of material in a wide variety of subject areas.

As I mentioned, as a child none of us are afraid of making mistakes. Yet, at a certain age, all this suddenly changes. All of a sudden we try something and we don't succeed and we get scolded or punished. Then we enter school, where we are bribed to "get it right" and penalized for "getting it wrong." Very rapidly we learn that making mistakes will cause us to be criticized, judged, chastised or even punished. We become afraid to try something new, knowing we will make mistakes and feel foolish and vulnerable. We start becoming invested in "being right."

At age 8, Daniel had already mastered the lesson. It's bad to make mistakes, and admitting weakness, ignorance or a lack of knowledge is dangerous.

Public School Does NOT Teach People to Think

That's right, public school doesn't teach people to think, i.e., to find creative solutions to problems. Public school is about teaching people to accept authority, not rock the boat and do things exactly as you are told.
In his book, If You Want to Be Rich & Happy Don't Go to School: Ensuring Lifetime Security for Yourself and Your Children, best-selling author Robert Kiosaky, points out this flaw (and others) in our public education system. As an example, he tells about a test he took where he thought he'd done really well, but actually failed.

According to Kiosaky, one of the questions went something like this, "Johnny went to the store to buy flour for his mother. At the store he found a one-pound sack of flour for $.35 and a five-pound sack of flour for $1.50. Which sack is the better buy?"

Kiosaky's answer was conditional, that is, the correct answer depended on a number of variables such as how much flour the family uses an d their storage capabilities for flour. After all, it's no bargain if the four isn't going to be used or if the flour will spoil before it is used. Another factor Kiosaky pointed out was the budget—how much money did Johnny have for buying flour?

The teacher was insistent that there was only one right answer and said Kiosaky's answer was wrong. The funny thing was that his answer was more correct. It was a real-life answer, not a textbook answer. Yet, the school system punishes this type of creative, real-world thinking and rewards conformity to authority and rote memorization. Thus, by the time most of people graduate from high school, their natural love of learning has been replaced by a fear of being wrong, and thus a fear of making mistakes.

Fortunately, when I was in Junior High School I decided that the whole educational system was "bunk." I was determined not to let school ruin my education (those were my exact thoughts). As such, I did just enough to get by in subjects I didn't like and focused on things I wanted to learn.

I was also fortunate because the high school I went to did an experiment with something called flexible scheduling while I was going there. It was a college-like scheduling program that gave us lots of "free time" for study during school hours. I spent almost all of my "free time" in our closed circuit TV studio doing video production and other creative work. I also helped write and publish (in our printing department) an "underground" school newspaper.

In short, I didn't allow the public school system to kill my love of learning. Because I "rebelled" against the system in a controlled way, I was able to get through the educational system retaining my creative thinking abilities. I am unusual in this regard. Most adults I've seen have little or no ability to think creatively or solve problems. Instead, like Daniel, they are stuck with "what they know" and hence have become unteachable.

I could go on ranting a lot more about my low opinion of public education, but that's not the focus of this article. Maybe I'll address this in another article, but meanwhile I highly recommend Kiosaky's book and another by a winner of New York's Teacher of the Year Award, John Taylor Gatto. Gatto's book is called Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gatto really explains why our school system is failing and why our kids are in so much trouble today.

"One Mistake Can Ruin Your Life"

Although I escaped the message "mistakes are bad" when it comes to education, I was totally ruled by this idea in my personal/spiritual life. My mother firmly believed, and taught us, that "one mistake can ruin your life." She got this because her older brother had gone on a mission for the Mormon church to South Africa. While there, a girl had "spiked" some punch at a social gathering and wound up seducing him, so that he was sent home from his mission.

Although I couldn't see how my Uncle's life was ruined—he seemed like a perfectly wonderful man to me—it was clear that my mother believed this "doctrine" whole-heartedly. We were constantly "berated" for our "mistakes" because she was trying to make all of us perfect. She really believed you had to be "perfect" and "sinless" to get to heaven. In fact, we weren't even supposed to do anything that might cause someone else to "think" we were doing something wrong.

Believe it or not, I tried to conform to this drive to be perfect, much to my own detriment. The drive to perfection in any area of life is fraught with danger, because it causes your sense of self-worth to hang on your performance. When you're performing well, you're allowed to feel good about yourself, but when you fail to live up to this high standard you're required to punish yourself. For example, the kid who is driven to get straight A's and have a "perfect" academic record may commit suicide because they get a B in a college class. (Seriously, this kind of stuff happens.)

But, on a less extreme note, the need to be "right" all the time in order to avoid punishment and gain acceptance and approval is destroying relationships on every level of our society. It is ruining marriages, damaging parent/child relationships, turning workplaces into dreary environments and creating a society where laws and litigation proliferate like cockroaches or rats.

Think of how many marital arguments could be avoided and how much conflict between parents and children could be eliminated if we didn't have to "be right." We could just say, "this is my point of view" and if the the other person had a different point of view there would be little need to argue. Let me give you just one example of how I applied this philosophy with my own kids.

If you spill a glass of water or milk, what do you do? You clean it up, right? Well, the way I approached it when my kids made mistakes like this was simple. I didn't lecture and I didn't scold. I simply said, "opps, let's clean that up." Then, I showed the child how to "fix" the mess. Isn't that a better way to do things. Instead of getting on someone's case over something they did, just ask them to "make it right" and if necessary show them how. That's really all that's required,and it turns the mistake into a learning process.

No, my mother was wrong. You aren't going to ruin your life with one mistake. However, if you get caught in the idea that you can't afford to be wrong, then when you do make a mistake, instead of admiting it and fixing it, you're likely to purpetuate it. And, you could ruin your life by continuining to make the same mistakes over and over again.

A Different Way to Learn

One of the problems I encounter in trying to teach holistic thinking about health is that people are so geared to the "one right answer" problem we mentioned earlier that they don't know how to apply principles to problem-solving situations. Part of the reason for this is they're too afraid of getting it wrong.

Okay, if you're using toxic drugs or performing surgery, I could understand that you might be nervous about causing someone serious harm if you got it wrong. However, when it comes to making dietary changes, recommending non-toxic herbs and supplements, and other natural healing techniques you don't have to worry about things. The best way to learn is to just start doing it. That's how I've learned things. I've learned a lot more from my experiences than I ever did from books, but then I'm not afraid to just try things.

I'm learning to do the same thing with my business. My mother's paranoid attitude that caused her to worry about what people would think has held me back for a long time. At a recent seminar I attended in Los Angeles, business and marketing guru Dan Kennedy said that what most people do in business is look around and copy what everyone else is doing. That's OK to a point, but the people who are the most successful in this world don't follow that model. Instead, they experiment. They're not afraid to try doing things that other people haven't tried. Yes, they may "fail" sometimes, but as long as they can say, "opps, that didn't work, what can we do to fix it?" they eventually succeed.

So, do yourself a favor. Get out today and risk making some mistakes. Try something new. Learn a skill that you feel foolish trying to do because you're having to start learning it like a child. Have the humility to fall on your face a few times, but, as long as you don't beat yourself up over it, you'll be able to get back up and you'll eventually learn to walk, and then run, and then soar.


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