Mistakes are great teachers. That is a hard thing to understand as a twelve year-old when the pressure of society makes you strive for perfection. I’ve tried to explain this to the Little Man, my own twelve-year old. It’s perfectly acceptable to make mistakes. That’s how we learn. The trick is to take the time to learn from our mistakes instead of just ignoring them. Make a mistake on a math problem? Look at it and figure out why? Was it careless arithmetic? A lack of understand the problem? Figure out what cause the mistake so that you can identify it the next time you see it. Of course, this is easier said than done.
One way that I try to do this is by writing down the mistakes I make–at least those that I become aware of. I call this “writing my wrongs.” When I notice that I’ve messed up some how, I’ll pull out my Field Notes notebook and jot down my mistake. I don’t always say exactly what I did wrong. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that jotting down a corrective action, if one is available, is more valuable for my future self. A simple example comes from yesterday. I moved the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. Later in the evening, Kelly said me to, “I appreciate you switching the laundry, but for future reference, the girls bathing suits don’t go in the dryer. It makes them shrink.” What I wrote in my notebook was, “Don’t put girls’ swimsuits in dryer.”
Writing down my mistakes does three things for me.
- It is an acknowledgement that I’ve messed up somehow.
- It provides an accessible list of things that I can work on improving
- The very act of writing it down helps me remember it the next time I’m in a similar situation.
The list occasionally serves another purpose: when I get a little too full of myself, I can always flip through my notebooks and see the great variety of ways that I mess up all the time.
The breadth of my mistakes is impressive. It can be something like putting the swimsuits in the dryer. Or it can be something like, “Next time, take the GW Bridge lower level to avoid that crush after the toll booth.”
Acknowledging my mistakes is important because that is one way in which I learn from them. You can’t learn if you can’t acknowledge them. Sometimes, ego gets in the way and I don’t want to admit to others that I made a mistake. These days, I try to admit my mistakes freely if only to show my kids that mistakes are an important way we learn. But even on those times when I am loathe to admit my mistakes to others, I still jot them down in my notebook so I admit them to myself.
I don’t have a particular routine for reviewing these mistakes. Sometimes I may not revisit one because writing it down fixes it in my mind. But I come across them when flipping through my notebooks, and I use that to judge if I have managed to improve. Sometimes I have, and other times, I haven’t. Still, there is something comforting to me about noticing my mistakes and writing them down. I feel like a squirrel storing acorns away for the coming winter. There are always things that I can improve, big or small, always nuts left behind in the nest that act as teachers instead of serving as food.
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