Musings on Mistakes – part one

As I mentioned in the return of “Sunday Spotlight”, I want to do more writing this year.  I’m going to start with a 3 part series talking about mistakes and learning.

In this post I’m going to look at societal attitudes towards mistakes, as well as our own relationship with them.  In part 2 I’ll be looking at things mainly from the viewpoint of a teacher and how important it is to make sure mistakes aren’t equated with character.  And in part 3 I’ll explore how most mistakes in music are easily fixed – just play the right note/rhythm, etc. instead! :) (I know, I know, easier said than done…)

Throughout this series, when I talk about mistakes I’m thinking of mistakes we make when learning something/imperfections/not doing things quite the way we pictured it, rather than mistakes made in a performance situation (performing music, piloting an airplane…)

This video and this post offer some of my thoughts on performance and how to try and achieve peak performance.  But what I’m interested in here is what we do when learning – and a natural and positive (though sometimes frustrating!) part of learning is making mistakes (i.e. not doing everything perfectly!)

As a baby we learn so many new skills.  And we do that just by trying to do stuff – without worrying about whether we’re making mistakes, or whether it’s perfect.  Obviously sometimes not being able to do what one wants can be immensely frustrating.  But trying and not succeeding doesn’t have a sense of shame attached to it.  We just try – mistakes and all.

As we get older this often changes.  In particular in a school setting there’s always a sense of “measuring up” – when we’re asked to do something we either succeed or fail.  Both are actually unproductive outcomes – in both cases we no longer need to think about or keep working on what we were doing – we’ve either won or lost, but either way, game over.

I think sometimes there is a societal view that learning is like an assembly line – you learn one little thing perfectly (your twos times tables, for example) and then you learn another little fragment, until eventually you put together these perfect little parts and voila! you now know math!

But I believe that what actually happens when we learn is we create a rough foundation of understanding/competence and over time we refine it – sometimes this part, and sometimes that area, but always as a broad entity, rather than disconnected, individual parts.*

And so as part of the process of course we’ll make “mistakes” – it’s inevitable – but we’ll just keep on refining and trying to do things the way we want – nothing to worry about or feel bad over (frustrating, sure – bad, no).  If we only try and do things that we’re “perfect” at right away, we’ll be pretttttty limited in what we can do.


How do you react to your own mistakes, and does your reaction help or hinder your learning?


I certainly think our society tends to promote and reinforce the idea that mistakes=bad and so it’s worth thinking about our own relationship with mistakes.  Do you find yourself beating yourself up over mistakes, with a whole bunch of value judgments implied?  Or you see mistakes as part of the process – frustrating, to be sure, but just things that you’re going to do the way you want eventually!

And if you do find yourself beating yourself up over mistakes, I think it’s worth trying to change that mindset – of course, easier said than done…

That’s it for part one!


*In music, of course, or any other physical skill, it can be very helpful to break down something and practice small parts of it, but even then I think we still need/are accessing this broader picture/understanding

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