tolerating big mistakes

I’m reading David Epstein’s book “Range” this week– it’s a fantastic book that talks about how generalists, rather than specialists, are primed for success. I love the book because it tells us that those of us who are “frequent quitters” will end up with the most satisfying careers; that failing a test is the best way to learn; and that generalists often find their path later in life. Having sampled other paths, they are creative, agile, and can make mental connections that specialists may not be able to see.

Image of Laura holding the book Range by David Epstein. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how being trained in multiple disciplines makes you more effective overall. A great read for yoga teachers, movement professionals, or folks who are changing careers!

I am therefore now not too proud to say now that I have been a “frequent quitter,” and that I’ve tried many paths that did not work for me. Leaving out the early defeats (Girl Scouts, 4H, softball, etc), we can pick up in my 20’s with my Bachelor’s degree in Spanish; my career as an artist; my customer service/banking career; my culinary degree and subsequent failure to thrive as a personal chef. We should probably also include my two marriages, since they were not ultimately successful.

For years, I felt deeply shamed by all of these– that somehow, by not managing to make these things work, I was a failure myself. Or maybe the character flaw was that I was a bad chooser in the first place; that I was passionate about things that didn’t turn out to be a good fit. There were times where I felt like I couldn’t go on; that my mistakes were too terrible and bad, and there was no good way forward.

“Desirable difficulties,” says Eptsein’s book, are “obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term.” While the book’s researchers were studying university students’ ability to learn vocabulary, I think the metaphor works well here. The “wrong turns” I took in my early 20’s turned out to be the learning experiences I needed to grow into the adult that I am: creative, flexible, resourceful.

Even more interesting to me was what the researchers called “the hypercorrection” effect: “The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”

“The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”

-William epsTein, range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world

My younger self was often quite (embarrassingly) confident of her choices, which meant that when it came time to admit defeat, it was sometimes a hard pill to swallow. There’s no doubt now those were the best learning opportunities. We remember most deeply the things that pain us the most.

Maya Angelou told us, “When you know better, you do better.” Our younger selves do the best they can so that our more mature selves can reap the benefits. Skills learned from earlier careers, relationships, and other “mistakes” translate into greater success in later life. R&B artist Ciara is a decade younger than I am, but she already knows:

Them old mistakes are gone, I won't do them no more 
That's old news, there's new news, I done did that before 
I turned nothing to something, my comeback on one hunnid' 
Less talking, more action, you just gon' see Ci coming 
I just keep elevating, no losses, just upgrading 
My lessons, made blessings, I turned that into money 
Thank God I never settled, this view is so much better 
I'm chilling, I'm winning, like on another level.

2 thoughts on “tolerating big mistakes

  1. Laura, good post about what sounds like an interesting book. Being able to admit you were wrong, to me, is a key step to maturity. One of my jobs was in a company that had a pyramid model, many the few at the top made the decisions. People were scared to stick their necks and admit they were wrong. I messed up something and told the person “I made a mistake, but I will fix it.” The person was stunned that I admitted that and said so. I replied it was my fault, so it better that you know that, so let me go fix the problem.

    I am far from perfect, but we need to fess up when we mess up. Keith

    1. It’s interesting that you bring up this story. You are so right. I am now reading (along with 5 other books) “Mindset” by Carol Dweck and one of the biggest takeaways has to do with the culture of companies with CEOs with “fixed” mindsets and how there is no room for errors (as in the company you worked for). There is no room for growth, change, or collaboration if we can’t fess up!

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