Last week, if you read closely, you probably noticed I made one of the more basic errors in writing — the one/won error. One is a number. Won is the past tense of the verb “to win”. I know this. I know it now as I knew it then, but I still made the mistake (and so many other basic errors before it). Why?
The brain is complex — far more so than I will ever understand in this lifetime, so all I’ll say is this: mistakes happen. The second I caught the one/won mistake, I immediately felt a sense of dread. Everyone will think I’m an idiot, I thought. What kind of a writer could I ever consider myself to be if I am making second grade errors? Then I started to think I should quit writing and dedicate my weekends to adult coloring books. I was really good at coloring when I was a kid...
But that’s not how to make mistakes. Making mistakes is how we learn, even if it means making mistakes over and over again
. Some would argue you should only make mistakes once and then never make them again because it’s a waste of time to make the same mistake twice. Those people should never learn to play a musical instrument. It would take me numerous tries on the piano before I could correctly play a particularly tricky run in a classical piece. I have sensitive ears, so I hated making mistakes on the piano — the sound of the same error over and over and over again made me crazy. My fingers would get twisted, because I would use my ring finger when I should have used my middle finger to play a note. It was agony. I hated hearing each wrong note; it was torture. I didn’t want to make mistakes — I wanted everything I did to be perfect.
I’m not alone. Girls and women, by and large, are often raised with memes and messages signaling to us that everything we do must be perfect
— that includes our hair, our nails, our face and our bodies. It keeps us from taking risks, and not risking failure prevents us from learning. In order to learn, after all, you have to make mistakes. If you get it right the first time or even the second time, then you won’t learn nearly as much as getting it right the fourth, fifth, sixth or even tenth time.
The secret to making mistakes isn’t to see a mistake as a reason to quit. It’s quite the opposite: mistakes are the reason to keep going. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, and it is one of the lessons that is the most poorly taught in school. The grading system, instead of grading perfection in answering questions or solving problems, should reflect improvement.
For example, if you take the first test in a class and get an F, and then you take the last test and get an A — you should get an A for the course. If you take the first test and get an A and take the last test and get an A … dare I say it, maybe you should get an F for the class, or be told to transfer to something you’d find more challenging. Then college admissions officers, future employers and graduate programs would be forced to see Fs differently as grades given for things a student was really good at doing from day one, and see As as a sign that the student really improved over the course of the class, sticking with a challenge. Not bad, huh?
I can already see academics’ heads exploding. Don’t worry about it, folks, I’m not running an academic institution anytime soon. But I do find the idea of weeding people into a challenge, rather than out of it, very inspiring and energizing.
Grading systems and piano practice aside, the best way to make a mistake is to see it, acknowledge it, learn from it and enjoy the ride.