It’s Okay to Make Mistakes

Nobody likes making mistakes. That’s obvious, but it goes even deeper than that. People hatre making mistakes. People would go to huge lengths to avoid mistakes, and I’m talking about absurdities here. There are people that would rather do nothing, and thus never make a mistake, then try and allow for that possibility.

Believe me, I know, because I’ve lived it and I see it every day.

I’m a martial arts instructor, and perhaps the hardest part of my job is getting people to see, accept and even welcome mistakes. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s the truth. People don’t get better by doing things perfectly. As I often say, if everyone could already do this, then I wouldn’t have a job. My job is to find your mistakes and get rid of them, to make you better. If you hide and don’t allow your mistakes to surface, then you are forever stuck in mediocrity.

There can be no growth without mistakes.

That’s the secret right there. If you never make a mistake, then you never get any better.

This is easily seen during any of our advanced kick or weapon training. These involve jumps, spins and throws, and these aren’t easy. No, they’re friggin’ tough. Doing a complete 360 spin in the air and kicking is tough. It’s supposed to be tough, because that’s what makes it awesome. If everyone could do it easily, then it wouldn’t have the appeal, no more than we envy people who can sit down. If everyone can do it, and do it perfectly, then it’s not something worth pursuing.

With weapon training, a big part is various manipulations. For example, doing handrolls or basic throws and catches. For a split second the weapon actually leaves your grip. You don’t have control over it, at least not in the way everyone wants, and if you don’t reestablish control then it crashes to the ground, often with a loud noise that gets everyone to look at you.

For that split second, everyone knows that you’ve made a mistake, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. You want to curl into a ball and die. Nothing could be more embarrassing … though, of course, in reality no one really cares. It’s a room of 10+ people, and someone is dropping something every few seconds. Unless you do something spectacular, like hit the ceiling or break a mirror, no one will remember your mistake after about six seconds. Seriously, no one cares.

We care, though. We care a big deal about not looking stupid. If I drop something, then I look stupid in front of other people, and that’s the biggest fear most people have, looking stupid.

Welp, I dropped something, now my life is over.

I’m an instructor, and from here there are three possibilities that I’ve seen. First, and sadly the most common, people give up. They stop trying. Rather than risking another mistake, another embarrassing moment, they do nothing. They don’t get any better, but they stay out of that negative spotlight. No negative reinforcement. Just pure anonymity.

In practice, this usually means giving the least amount of effort possible. On the one hand, they still want to learn these cool skills, but the fear of making a mistake is too strong. If they sense that no one is watching, they might try something. If they succeed, they’ll try again, but the second they make a mistake it’s back to doing nothing. Such kids can do class for months, even years, and never get any better, simply because they aren’t doing anything.

Now, I say kids, but adults are just as guilty. They tend to do it in a different way, though. Instead of giving up, they do something different, something easier. “I’ll just practice the basics a bit more before trying that hard move.” This is a good attitude, don’t get me wrong. Practicing and perfecting the basics definitely makes more advanced moves easier. However, if you only practice the basics, if you forever stay in easy mode, then your progress slows and stops just as if you did nothing at all.

Another possibility is to practice alone at home. I want to say this is rarer but, by definition, I can’t know. Again, this isn’t bad by itself. If anything it’s a good thing. The more you practice the better you get, and this is infinitely better than just giving up. What some people do, though, is practice all the hard stuff alone and only do the easy things in class, in front of other people.

I know this because I used to be one of those people. I’m a blackbelt in karate, but I’m not amazing at everything. I have strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone, but as an instructor I feel in a tough spot. If I show that I’m bad at something, why should my students follow me or listen to my advice? I need to show competence at all times, or so I thought.

In my head, I turned this into, ‘Those that can’t do, can’t teach.’

I practiced diligently at home, putting in hours and hours, and something interesting happened. I never got to an acceptable level, or acceptable to me at least. I kept thinking, ‘I need to get a little bit better,’ and that never ended. If I had a choice, I’d never show this off, because I would never reach the necessary perfection.

Fortunately fate stepped in and I had to demonstrate my form in front of other blackbelts. I wasn’t bad, but I was far from perfect … and then something magical happened. I got feedback! Can you believe it? These other instructors wanted to make me better! They spotted things I could do to improve, things I’d never consider. I learned and improved more in those 10 minutes than in 10 hours of my own private practice, and remember, I was already a blackbelt. I knew how to practice, what to do, but that wasn’t enough.

This gave me the courage to show more things in public, to seek feedback. As I did this, two things happened. One, I got better faster, which you would expect, but so did my students. They saw me make mistakes, but they didn’t think, “Man, he sucks, let’s go do kung fu instead.” No, the looked at me and said, “Wow, our Sensei makes mistakes, too. Maybe it’s okay if we make mistakes as well.”

They followed my example. More and more were willing to make mistakes, to demonstrate publicly and to receive the necessary feedback. They then got better much faster. Other students watched them, they saw that progress, and they tried harder as well. By trying harder, that mostly means allowing themselves to make mistakes, to not be embarrassed, to use each one as a learning experience.

Really, that’s what mistakes are, learning experiences. That’s what I tell my students. Every time you drop your weapon, that means you’re still learning. Those that never drop never learn, either because they’re a master and have nothing left to learn, or because they aren’t trying and thus can’t learn.

I’ve mentioned two groups of people, those that shrink from challenges and those that try to do things privately, away from juding eyes. There is a third group, the kind that see the challenge and meet it head on. Yes, they make mistakes, but they don’t care that they might look stupid because the end goal, mastering a certain advanced move, will make them look awesome. These people learn the fastest, by far, and it’s not because of talent. Some of them are quite bad, in fact, but because they aren’t afraid to make mistakes they get better.

I’m not perfect at this yet. I still buckle at making public mistakes. I suppose you could say I still make mistakes in my approach to thinking about mistakes. I’m getting better, though, and this is making me better at everything I do. The more I experience that, the more I realize that mistakes are okay.

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