The Value of Making Mistakes

By Fletcher Carr, Head of Upper School fletcher117w

About three years ago, I read an interview conducted with Drew Gilpin Faust. Dr. Faust is an historian who has written many wonderful books and articles that I have read and shared with my history students over the years; she also happens to be the president of Harvard, which this year enters its 380th year of existence. In this interview, Dr. Faust was asked what book she would recommend to entering students at Harvard, and she did not hesitate, answering that she would ask that these accomplished young students read the book, On Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz. Schultz’s book was the first volume in a recent flurry of books that examines the ideas of error and making (and learning from) mistakes. In the last three years, other books, Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong and the very recent contribution to the genre of what is being called, in Schultz’s words, “wrongology”, The Gift of Failure: How The Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed have made similar arguments.

Ultimately, these books are all exploring the fears of failure that, on many levels, can destroy what should, in students, be an innate love of and curiosity about learning and discovery. And there are so many factors as to why we have reached this point: an ever-growing population of high school graduates heading to college, combined with a relatively unchanging number of spots open at very competitive colleges, has made the stress of getting into these schools almost unfathomable, and as a consequence, the ripple effect that this demand creates moves along the chain to nearly all levels of college admission. This game of numbers has also been impacted by national reform movements in education over the last 30 years. As I entered the education sector in the mid-1980s, there was an increasing emphasis on developing self-esteem in students, particularly at a young age. The idea behind this movement was that if students felt good about themselves, they would not be afraid to make mistakes and would thus like and succeed in the process of learning. With this movement came many ideas, one of the best known being “participant” recognition, which gave rise to the dreaded participant trophy that highlighted the notion that all competitors are more or less equal, and that as long as everyone has fun and feels good about themselves, then any event that included living, breathing people could be considered a success.

Since its introduction to education, this idea has run up against the realities of a world that is vastly changed—a world more competitive, flattened by technology, and perhaps less patient with the warm-fuzzies of self-esteem when set against the fierce realities of the global marketplace. And certainly, there has been a backlash against this rather humane idea—as a nation, we have been criticized for creating a generation of students who are simply happy to be here. Real learning, the critics of this movement say, comes from having to work to earn excellence—to these folks, self-esteem does not come from liking yourself, it comes from mastering subjects and skills.

With the stakes seemingly higher and higher, however, the margin of error mentioned in the title of Schultz’s book seems to be getting smaller and smaller, particularly in schools. A decade or so ago, I had the opportunity to visit my undergraduate college and attend the classes of several of my former professors. Like any alumnus, I am proud of my college–the students there have remarkable high school resumes—certainly much more polished than those in my graduating class years ago could boast. In sitting in on the classes, however, I noticed something—the class discussions were flat and unadventurous. As I drove home from my visit, I wondered if my memory was playing tricks on me and if I was embellishing what I recalled as the fun and much more lively class dialogues from my college years. So, I called one of the professors as well as a former classmate who was now teaching there and asked if what I was sensing was right. They both agreed, theorizing that the process of gaining admission to a highly competitive college exerts a tremendous amount of pressure on students to follow a virtually errorless high school path—and that the habit of avoiding mistakes has led to increasingly tentative students who are extraordinarily able in virtually every facet of their lives, but are also extraordinarily concerned about making mistakes or putting themselves out there. The books that I have read recently—and Harvard’s president’s recommendation that the incoming students read that book on being wrong, however–tells me that others are also seeing this pattern.

So, if this is a pattern—and if you recognize it in yourself or in others, what do you do? The making of mistakes is a complex and fascinating topic—St. Augustine famously proclaimed that “to err is human”; and Schultz includes in her book a wonderful observation by Ben Franklin, who noted in 1784 that “…the history of the errors of mankind is more valuable and interesting than that of its discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow…but error is endlessly diversified; it has no reality, but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it…” Many argue that our reactions to mistakes are cultural, others argue that the reactions are based on individual responses and our own cognitive development—whatever the case, making mistakes is profoundly human. Harder, but still human, are our attempts to disguise our errors or to hold onto a view that has clearly been proven wrong.

The topic is an enormous one, given the ways in which we can be wrong; we can be part of a small and funny “comedy of errors” or we may—hopefully rarely or never–be part of a much more serious error. Often it is those individuals and organizations in high-risk areas, such as airline companies or the military, who drive some of the best research in risk analysis and error prevention. But nearly any business enterprise, by virtue of its research and development process— a process that actually encourages and budgets for errors and experiment—works heavily in the wrongology department. In her book, Schultz notes that three common themes have emerged from many of these studies: first, that organizations should have a “tolerance for failure” built in. In many organizations, that tolerance is the research and development program; in schools, maybe that margin exists in draft papers, series of experiments, or advisory meetings that discuss good decision-making. The second common theme is the openness of the organization to error-making and a commitment to the transparency of the procedures in place at all levels—in that way, all can see where mistakes may take place and have a hand in correcting them. And lastly, hard, verifiable data is critical to pull the humans in the organization away from their “human-ness”. Often, our own biases and opinions can make us the type of person who my grandmother would often drily refer to as “often in error, but never in doubt”, or in other words, the person who pushes through wrongheaded ideas with little pause for reflection. There are many ways that our minds will get behind an incorrect idea and stay with it beyond all rational measures.

Making mistakes and learning from them is also something that has much to do with your own mind-set—or the set of attitudes that you have established for the way you learn and develop. Ms. Davis and Ms. TerAvest will be looking in more detail at that important concept with you as the year progresses.

More than anything, though, you can simply be aware of those areas at school and in your life where you make mistakes (and I am assuming from my own experience in life, that that is every area!)—and how you can recognize them and develop that tolerance for failure, process through your fear of making mistakes and figure ways to learn from them, and lastly simply own and articulate them. The more that you and your classmates and all of the members of the community can do this, the easier and less worrisome the process will seem—and when you have gotten to that point, watch out—great things can happen.

This summer, I attended a workshop directed by faculty members from Stanford University’s Design School, a program at the university that focuses on ways to look differently at how we think and create things. On the first day, the director of the program announced that she had a very important question to ask all of us before we started the process. So, I waited for what I assumed would be a lofty, philosophical question about the nature of the creative process. The director waited a second as the room grew silent and then asked: “What does a clown do when he or she makes a mistake?” A few mumbled replies could be heard.

“A clown,” she continued, “bows deeply and says ‘Ta Da!’” In other words, clowns recognize a mistake, own it, and move on. My group at the workshop actually did a lot of this during our design sessions and it was quite effective; the rather silly action of bowing and saying ‘Ta Da’ made mistakes seem less dreadful and thus more easily dealt with.

So, here’s to a lot of loud and proud ‘ta-das’ this year and over the course of your lives—good luck, let your voice be heard– wrong or right–and find your answers!

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