Mistakes Don’t Fail Me Now

photo by Mason New

Last week, I visited a school that has a special mission to teach kids with dyslexia. In one classroom perched high and near the front, positioned at a focal point of the room hung a sign: “Mistakes are proof you’re trying.” Later that day, I heard a young girl who attends a different school say to her mother, “Well, I just made careless mistakes here which is why I got that grade.”

Think for a moment on your own experience in school. Which attitude did your teachers present to you? Mistakes or Perfection encouraged? In my experience, the latter — I still see my third grade teacher with her red pen sitting at her desk making Xs on my math test, while the students waiting in line behind me watched to see my results. Xs everywhere.

As I reflect on my early career as a teacher, I tried to encourage mistakes, to see reading, writing, and thinking as a continual process. I had studied the great books of literature, history, and philosophy, and during that study I learned every human fails often and usually on profoundly moral levels. So, I hope in my classroom, I taught my students that everyone, including me, makes mistakes. It’s impossible to learn without them.

Right now, I’m reading a superb book, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall. He details the great innovations of time come not from organizational culture that encourages risk, but instead, organizational structure that allows it. Bahcall intersperses historical examples of the great advances in medicine, science, and technology with stories of repeated failures and human reasons for them. In almost every example, the early days of the idea, what Bahcall refers to as its most fragile moment, have legions of naysayers and obstructionists. In every success, the geniuses and visionaries persist. They make the mistakes, analyze them, and keep moving but only when the leader of the company or lab makes it possible to fail often. These leaders manage the transition from idea to reality, and these leaders put barriers to keep out all those who say, “This will never work.”

In recent years, many educational reformers, school leaders, and teachers have claimed that schools now encourage risk. In many ways, they do. But, often schools are promoting attitudinal changes towards risk, not foundational ones. Grades do little to foster risk taking, and anyone, whether a college admissions officer or potential employer, examining a GPA contributes to the problem. After all, you don’t get admitted or hired if you talk about how many times you failed.

Of course, we have big problems in the world. I’m working on solutions to a couple right now, in fact. But, as I build my company I know I must promote fragile ideas and help those people who have them to make mistakes. It proves they are trying.

Thank you for reading.

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