American education has a dim outlook on mistakes. After all, we pass or fail based upon how many correct answers we make on tests. Mistakes are wrong from this perspective. 2 + 2 must always equal 4, although an answer of 5 leads to a more profound lesson. This attitude toward mistakes filters into the everyday.
We are mistaken about mistakes. A person who doesn’t make mistakes never learns anything at all.
Mistakes are necessary to learn. The mind remembers a mistaken, and more importantly how to avoid it, better than a right answer from the outset. Without a flub, we will never have a chance to ask why does this or that work the way it does. Most Americans settle for the correct answer and move on. That is what American education has done for us. Mistakes allow the brain to draw associations between causes and effects and other information that it may not be able to draw from a correct answer. We seek to avoid pain and find reward. We tend to stop when we reach the reward. However, pain drives us to find a way to avoid it. A wrong answer is “painful.” That is where we learn the most. Unfortunately, society punishes mistakes. People with any type of criminal record are ostracized from civil society because of their mistakes. An eighteen-year-old man can be labeled a sex offender for his entire life if he has sex with his seventeen-year-old girlfriend, and her family reports him. A mistake on the job can lead to you being fired.
Mistakes lead to great breakthroughs.No one is perfect, and that is good. Remember penicillin? Yep, it was a mistake. Edison’s phonograph? Another mistake. In many regards, our modern society was built on the fruits of mistakes. Accidents open doors to possibilities we may not see otherwise. They draw attention to what is ignored.
What set genius apart is the willingness to make mistakes. Ambiguity is all around us. Genius is embracing ambiguity with playfulness and seeing what happens. Wrong answers are never really wrong. They are just answers to different questions. Genius is finding the questions for those answers.
Mistakes are not sin. In many Christian faiths, mistakes are equated with sins. Sex outside of marriage is a sin in most traditions; a pregnancy from such a “sin” is a mistake. However, the child born can help the mother or father gain a better appreciation for life. In that case the sin, the mistake, was a good event. I view sins as mistakes that we never learn from. Repentance is an act of learning. If we learn from a mistake we won’t repeat it. Mistakes are vital to self-improvement. God certainly realizes this. He did, after all, create the universe in such a way that mistakes are a part of it. A small god punishes the creation for its created nature.
Next time you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up. Laugh at yourself, forgive yourself, and figure out what question the mistake is answering.