Sweet failure.

Sometimes we try our best, but...
Sometimes we try our best, but…

This week I was reminded I make mistakes. Missteps. Goofs. Gaffs. And while I’m trying to focus on some of the successes, the good moments, my amygdala, albeit not hijacked, is certainly in a time-out mode, a ‘stand in the corner and think about what you did’ kind of place. I tell a story about my wedding and reception, where it fascinates me that we think about the errors, and not the beauty, of an event. I forgot to have someone hold the door open for me, and the hence the door closed on the end of my dress, causing for not such a grand entrance. It was a detail that was my responsibility, because all details are my responsibility. If you watch the video of the ceremony, the moment lasts a blip on screen, a cute moment, but it remains in freeze-frame in my memory. We all have our “Bill Buckner” moments. For me, sometimes hourly:

Fans will always remember the error Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox made in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series against New York Mets. Credit Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe, via Associated Press
Fans will always remember the error Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox made in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series against New York Mets. Credit Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe, via Associated Press

And, turns out, being human, this is not uncommon. There is research that supports this idea that we tend to remember negative, not positive, events/emotions. This is not a case about optimism versus pessimism either, but how mistakes affect us longer.

In an essay by Alina Tugend, “Praise is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall,” March 23, 2012 New York Times, she discovers:

“The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass, who co-authored “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships” (Penguin 2010). Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.

First -what the heck is a ‘brickbat?’ Oh, okay.

The truth is we do learn more from our mistakes than successes. It’s difficult to describe why or how something worked or flowed, but we spend a lot of time dissecting and problem solving when something doesn’t. I’m doing it now: devoting writing energy to this topic. We curse the writer’s block, but never feed the muse. We don’t know what she eats, we’re just happy when she shows up. We’re not sure why we’re great at geometry but not algebra, but we remember that D- in Algebra II forever. (Perhaps I shouldn’t use the pronoun ‘we’ so liberally here, and own that D-.)

Walk away with this: our students are extra sensitive to their missteps and mistakes. That’s why the first question out of their mouths in any private conversation is, “Am I in trouble?” And there are some things that are a one-off–a mistake that won’t be repeated because the scenario is unprecedented. Getting students accustomed to balanced feedback may be essential:

Also, perhaps the very fact that we tend to praise our children when they’re young — too much and for too many meaningless things, I would argue — means they don’t get the opportunity to build up a resilience when they do receive negative feedback.

Now students are quick to say, with any critique, a blanket response of “That’s rude.” I wonder if many of us have lost the ability to know a critique from a criticism, or advice from a put-down.

I was thinking about how we learn (abstract concepts) earlier this week: there are two stand-out moments from my undergraduate/post graduate days. First, the reluctance of my art professors to actually teach me anything about art except for the abstract ‘academic language’ about art. (Sound familiar? Teach academic language but not the academics? I think we teachers are all struggling with this at times, but a post for another day.) My biggest break-through moment was when a painting teacher physically showed me how to increase tone/light on a canvas, with my permission, directly on the piece using my brush and palette. I wish I could thank him. Instead of just passing me along, bumbling, he actually showed me what to do. The second came in my brief stint in graduate school, where a visiting professor ripped my work apart. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but in essence my work was horrible and I was bad and bad and should go away and not be bad. I quit my MFA program not long after that. It wasn’t just that one instance, it may have had something to do with a stupid boyfriend, being a pizza delivery girl, (and getting lost…a lot), deep homesickness, topped with a huge scoop of 20-something “What am I doing with my life?” merengue. But he didn’t help. At all. I haven’t made art since.

Here’s what I learned from my mistakes this week:

1. No matter how much I think about something, or consider it from all angles, and get advice from others, if it’s a difficult situation, I probably could have handled it better. And I’ll have that added information if there is a ‘next time.’

2. With humans, there will probably be a ‘next time.’

3. People construe things I say or think in ways I never intended. I am not in control of this, and never will be. It is their responsibility to either seek clarification or not. In the words of Deepak Chopra:


With new visions (visions in the forms of ideas, leadership, movements, etc.) come new ways to misstep, too, to not be in tune with the new song the orchestra’s playing. But that’s okay–truly. Think about it from students’ perspectives (and there is no other focus to consider). They are moving through multiple mazes of teachers’ personalities, quirks, peculiarities, and expectations. The clearly spoken and not-so-tangible unspoken rules. I like the idea of a ‘kudos’ folder– a place where they keep both genuine praiseworthy feedback, but perhaps also a moment where they received some criticism and made a decision about it: was it in their control to change, or not?

For every time I make a mistake, I am afforded an opportunity to play better, to gain experience that otherwise would be stifled. Mistakes fan the flames, make our brains fired up, provide the oxygen and catalyst for change. Is it painful? Yes, but these moments make for the best story. Pack a sense of humor, and check your mirrors, for objects may be closer than they are.

Now perhaps time to create something other than a mess.

TED Playlist on How to Learn From Mistakes