My high school algebra teacher loved to say, “only God does math in pen” every time she caught one of us using a pen in her class. That wise saying, said probably weekly during that year in my teens, stayed locked away in my brain for decades until this morning, when I was doing some math lessons with my 7 year old son. He wrote his “9” backwards, as seven-year-olds do after a summer of not writing many numbers. I gently pointed it out and was rewarded with the grumbling frustration of a boy that hates making mistakes. Poor guy inherited perfectionism from his mama, but I heard that voice of my algebra in my ear and passed the wisdom along: “It’s ok, buddy! That’s why people do math in pencil, so we can make mistakes and try again. Only God does math in pen.” And he smiled, erased, and tried again.
I think about perfectionism a LOT. My son struggles with regular frustration that he can’t do every single thing he wishes to do with perfect execution the first time, every time. I sympathize, because I was exactly the same way. In a lot of ways, I still am. The wisdom I’ve come across over decades of mistake-making is that failing forward isn’t automatic. In order to grow and gain from your failures, you have to learn from them. There was a time when I thought this “learning” was an obvious after-effect of all mistakes. Automatic; effortless. No need to pause and reflect, just try again. Sometimes that works, but I’ve learned that the pause-and-reflect step is a critical one.
Failing forward isn’t automatic.
Finding the lesson of the mistake makes the mistake worthwhile. A mistake is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.
I’m a firm believer that we can learn from others’ mistakes, too. Our mistakes, and the lessons we glean from them, are of value to others! When you don’t want to look at the mistake you’ve made for your own growth and benefit, can you learn from it for those you care about? What wisdom will you gain that you can give to your children, or your team? Just be careful not to share more about your woes and misfortunes (because we know how fun–yet completely unproductive–that can be!) than the wisdom you gleaned from it.