If you’ve ever watched a world championship in figure skating, you know that there are two types of performers; the good ones, who do very well but finally end up without medals. Then there’s the second group; those who are stunning artists and never make a mistake during their performance. The same is true about musicians, dancers, opera singers, actors, footballers, etc.
I’m sure that if I did any of the above mentioned, I’d fall into the first category. The thing is that I’m a born ‘error generator’. My capacity to make mistakes is enormous; I make rookie mistakes when I write on the board in class, I invariably make errors when I produce my blog posts, countless slips of the tongue happen to me whenever I speak publicly, I used to make mistakes when I played a musical instrument in front of an audience, I make careless miscalculations when I count my students’ test scores, things slip out of my hands when I’m preparing a meal, you name it. In short, whenever I aim at a flawless performance, I make a mistake. It almost feels like a curse.
Yet people say that mistakes are a blessing in disguise. Some of the most popular assertions and quotes about mistakes are:
If you’re making mistakes, you’re making new things.
If you learn from your mistakes, you’ll be a better person.
Mistakes are forgivable if you have the courage to admit them.
If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.
Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
A life spent making mistakes is not only honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
That’s all very nice. Judging by what some great historical figures said about the meaning of mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with me making them. But still, there are some situations in which I believe I should not be erring. Although I can accept the fact that making errors is an inevitable part of learning, they can be irritating once you think you’ve already learnt something or should have learnt it (provided that it is possible to learn something perfectly). I mean, why do I keep making mistakes in basic words I’ve known for ages? I know that ‘if‘ is not ‘of‘, and that ‘than‘ means something else than ‘that‘, so why do I constantly have to correct these words in my writing?
I believe that apart from being a helpful part of one’s learning journey, mistakes must have another meaning. If you make mistakes, and you are aware of making them (mistakes one doesn’t know about are pretty insignificant for that particular person), you do so for a reason – everything that happens to us has some meaning after all. It may be that mistakes help us focus; they help us concentrate and zoom in on aspects of life we tend to ignore.
If I drop a glass, it’s not because I’m exceptionally clumsy but because I’m not living in the present moment – I’m thinking of million other things instead of focusing on the one I’m doing at that particular moment. If I publish a post with a typo in it, it’s not a disaster. But once I discover the typo, I should realize that I either wasn’t fully concentrated or patient enough when producing my writing. I published it too early, without proper proofreading and I didn’t stick to the rule to wait a couple of days, or at least hours, to read it again. If I stumble and jabber during my public speech, I may have not prepared it properly, or I may well suffer from stage fright, and this unpleasant experience tells me I should do something about it.
Either way, I believe that I’m a habitual error generator because I’m an impatient and absent-minded person, and some power inside me probably encourages me to change it. It must be a loving power that wants the best for me, and it is probably the same power that prevents people from ending up in car accidents and hospitals. It’s the power that teaches people to slow down and perceive the details. Also, by making minor mistakes, noticing and handling them, I basically avoid the potentially bigger and graver risks.
I’ve seen it many times before in the classroom too – students winding up their essays and handing them in straightaway without bothering to read them again. In such a case I force myself to be merciless as a teacher, and I subtract points for their carelessness, even though I understand that their mistakes are not a result of ignorance. I know they’re too restless to look back; that they prefer to look ahead. So it’s my red pen notes and bad grades that make them stop for a while and reflect on what they could have prevented.
So yes, errors are an inevitable part and a spice of all learning endeavours, but they shouldn’t be magnified, nor should they be trivialized. It’s useful to teach our students that many mistakes they make are preventable. Trial and error is a fundamental method of solving problems but also, some mistakes are incorrigible, and the consequences can haunt us for the rest of our lives. Not always do we get a second chance. One error in an entrance exam test can destroy all our future dreams. The fact that I only have one chance and not another may make me feel frustrated, but it also teaches me to become more responsible for my deeds. By making our students (but primarily ourselves) more responsible and attentive, we help them to learn to overcome their potential frustration from future failures. It’s simply more palatable to discover that I’ve failed because I didn’t know the answer than because of my carelessness and a lack of concentration.