Sh*t To Help You Show Up January 29, 2021
Mistake made! Salute!
Can we talk about mistakes?
Hey, friends. Happy Friday! All week I’ve been pondering something that came up in my interview with Angelina Blasich on Monday. She said the most important thing that helped her live into her belief that growth is possible for everyone was allowing herself to make mistakes. She talked initially about striving to greet them with non-judgment, but what she worked her way around to was the importance of actually celebrating them.
I don’t know about you, but I was not raised to celebrate my mistakes in any setting— school, home, or with friends. Making mistakes always involved shame and humiliation.
When I was six years old I learned to associate shame and error memorably. I grew up in D.C., in a predominately Black neighborhood. I had internalized the stricture that I was never, ever to address any Black elder by their first name. For me, as a little White girl, to presume to speak as an equal to a Black adult resonated too strongly with the history of slavery. My mother was not having it, and fair enough.
Yet, in our religious community, everyone of every age and color went by their first names, which meant I had to code-switch constantly. Mostly, like all young children who grow up bi-lingual, I did this pretty effortlessly. But just like sometimes you mistakenly use a word in language A when you’re in the middle of a conversation in language B, on this particular day I ran out into the middle of a conversation between my mother and our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Brown and breathlessly addressed her accidentally by her first name, Celestine, which I knew because that’s what my mother called her.
The world stopped spinning for a moment as soon as the word popped out of my mouth. Instantly I knew I had done something very, very wrong. Mrs. Brown peered disgustedly at me. As if I had peed on her shoe.
Dying on the spot would have been preferable to being trapped between my own humiliation and that look. My mother snatched me by my ear and dragged me back into our house, likely while apologizing breathlessly over her shoulder. But I don’t really remember, being too focused on my ear being yanked off my head. I can still feel the shame bubbling in my guts reliving it all in my head forty-three years later.
Now, to be fair to my mom, it is not solely the fault of adults that we internalize shame. Some of us seem primed for shame and humiliation temperamentally, while others are more prone to letting mistakes roll off us like our egos wear raincoats. I was a ready vessel for shame, as is my oldest child. He hates learning new things. Has since he was a baby. That thing that most babies do when learning to walk— practicing their balance by pulling up on any heavy object then working their way around the edge of the room? Falling, then getting up and simply trying again?
My kid literally never did that. Until he was 17-months old he refused to take a single step without holding my hand. Then, one day, he stood up in the middle of the kitchen floor while holding onto nothing, took two steps. He fell once, then stood up again and made it all the way to me. Within 48 hours he was running across our front lawn.
Nearly every single new thing is like this for him— crawling, walking, learning to ride a bike, reading. He takes mistakes personally as if they offer information about his value as a person. He avoids practicing until he feels confident he’ll make almost no mistakes, that he’ll be “good”, and then he takes off running.
My younger child is not like this at all. She practices things constantly. When she makes mistakes, she just gets up and tries again. If anything, she often gets bored and wanders away before she learns something, but she rarely processes mistakes as evidence of a lack of worth.
So, temperament is involved in how each of us approaches learning. Whatever our temperament generally, however, when we’re talking about learning something that has to do with character— like how to live with integrity— we are more prone to default to shame and humiliation when we make mistakes.
Why is that?
I suspect it’s due to the historical association of integrity in Western culture with God. As I discussed recently, the idea of “doing what is right” historically means “following God”, and doing wrong is… basically everything else. Honesty, consistency, reliability, sincerity are all a part of integrity. Every time we make a mistake trying to practice any of these traits we are culturally primed, whether or not we actually believe in God, to feel we are sinful, ungodly, and at our core, wrong. Like, going to hell kind of wrong.
Allow me to suggest that this is not a good learning strategy.
Learning & Mistakes
In the United States, we have historically focused in education on avoiding error at all costs. Prominent 20th-century behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner believed mistakes got entrenched too quickly, becoming nearly impossible to uproot, so must be pre-empted. This idea, combined with our cultural tendency to think of being right as “good” and wrong as “bad”, has caused teachers to either ignore or punish errors and emphasize correct answers. But this is not the only way to approach mistakes.
A study of the difference in math-learning approaches between 8th-graders in the U.S. and Japan highlighted the utility of productive struggle. While U.S. teachers focused on procedures for getting the right answer and praised “success”, Japanese teachers largely left students to figure problems on their own and then, “led a discussion of common errors, why they might seem plausible and why they were wrong. Praise was rarely given and students were meant to see struggle and setbacks as part of learning”.
Guess which country’s kids tend to be better at math?
Further studies, spearheaded by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, pointed to the existence of “mindsets” in learning success. Dweck defined the fixed mindset as believing one’s intelligence is fixed. Those with growth mindset believe intelligence is fluid and can increase with practice and effort. Growth mindset folks see mistakes as a reason to work harder, rather than evidence of inherent lack of capacity.
The two mindsets are associated with different brain activity, but it’s software, not hardware. A growth mindset can be taught! Instead of encouraging fear of failure, and related issues with self-worth, we can actually train kids and ourselves that mistakes are a necessary, and often incredibly fruitful, path to learning.
Sending much love to each and every one of you. Thank you for supporting my work. Please share widely, like (click the heart!), comment, and SUBSCRIBE if you haven’t already. Let’s grow this conversation.