Enjoying Mistakes

After writing the title I paused for at least 15 minutes. Then I was laughing about myself, recognizing the difficulty expressing my thoughts well as being fearful of writing something stupid. If I indeed enjoy mistakes, what’s that hesitation about? And why would anyone enjoy their mistakes anyway?

The short answer is that, in my experience, the more you can enjoy your mistakes as they happen, the fewer mistakes you will make over time—and not only by redefining what a mistake is. Rather than the usual suspect, maybe this post needs to get at this question:

How does this work?

My answer does not provide any scientific and fully mechanistic answer. I do hope, however, that—unless I have lost your attention already—you might be intrigued enough to follow my train of thoughts, and then experience some curiosity about whether it is worth trying it out.

Let’s start with the initial observation: after writing the title, it took me a long time to get going with the piece. After spending a few minutes in a curiosity driven inquiry, I became keenly aware of how important it is for me to feel that my posts are well received. And probing a little deeper, the main point for me is not applause. I really hope that my writing can help you, my readers, to lead more satisfying lives.

While I no longer have a particularly strong feeling of responsibility for what other people choose to do, the same and very old learning that I want to address with this piece had, yet again, crept up on me:

I am afraid to make a mistake! (And if someone else makes a mistake, it’s my job to correct that through some form of punishment.)

Bummer! Well, here’s yet another learning opportunity. With that, I laughed about, at, and with myself. And right there, I was enjoying the mistake.

In a nutshell, the process that I have found transforms my experience of fear—a constriction coming with a sense of dread about making a potential mistake in expectation of others’ or my own self-punishment—into one of enjoyment requires the following steps:

  • (strongly) consider that the culture I grew up with, one that uses punishments of whatever kind to increase the efficiency of learning, is misguided
  • appreciating that all human beings make mistakes, and that few people (if any) make mistakes intentionally
  • learning from a mistake is easy and natural if—and only if—the process that produced the mistake remains accessible
  • if fear of punishment is part of the experience, my cognition becomes much less flexible, as my mental/psychological immune system kicks in to protect me from the expected blow
  • as I become aware of all that, I can mourn all moments in my life where I wasn’t able to learn—because I was too afraid to admit to myself the mistake, out of fear of punishment
  • so long as I see myself as worthy of love, I can love myself with all the mistakes I have ever made, and to the extent that this love can reach deep enough, I will become open and able to take in the lesson the mistake wants to teach me
  • with that learning comes enjoyment, because I am no longer stuck making the same mistake again and again

Depending on the nature of a mistake I am making (or about to make), I sometimes can already jump to the last step immediately, especially if it is a very small and unimportant thing. Dropping or spilling something in the kitchen might be one of those moments.

At other times, when what I am doing really matters to me, this is a much more difficult process to go through, and feelings of shame or guilt can make it really, really hard. And so I want to take a few moments to describe what has been most helpful for me here:

Become aware that you are connected to all living humans (and life on the planet).

How does that help? In my intuitive understanding, it goes a bit like this… Imagine that rather than being a separate individual, you are—in a manner of speaking—one outgrowth of all (human) life on this planet. You could say that you are one tiny little twig in the tree of life. And a mistake could be seen as something that hurts yourself and, more often than not, another branch.

The important aspect to become aware of is that whatever part of the tree of life is potentially hurt by the mistake is part of the same tree! So it doesn’t really make any sense to punish yourself, because that would hurt the tree even more than it is already being hurt by the mistake.

Imagine a tree growing two twigs from two different (major) branches, and at some points the twigs meet in mid-air, fighting over which one gets to grow, while the other one withers away. That is kind of what our culture of punishment and fear of it makes us do to one another, on a daily basis.

Which leads me to the last question: if punishments are not really the best way to learn, why do we use them all the time?

Again, I have to rely on my intuition when it comes to understanding biological and cultural evolution. As human consciousness bootstrapped itself into existence, our first priority was to understand other people’s intentions to stay alive. That means whenever someone felt that their life was in danger from another human’s actions—say in a tribal dispute turned violent—it was incredibly important to get a good sense of what the other person’s intentions were.

And once you have a mental model of intentions, well, it then seems natural if you want to change someone’s intentions to use force against them. And fear of punishment is indeed a powerful deterrent. Out of this experience, made over and over again, we probably took the learning that punishment can indeed be effective to stop a behavior—at the cost of the person being punished enjoying the relationship far less. What we didn’t understand is that using punishments to learn to act differently is a bit like a trying to teach a blind person to see. Each time they make a mistake, they are being punished on top of not being able to see in the first place…

1 comment

  1. Great post Jochen – love what you’re saying about finding ease around mistakes so you can stay creative! Something wise I learned long ago: Mistakes are progress toward truth.

    Thanks for a great article!

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