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Lifestyle: Mistakes are good, right?

26 Oct 2018

I was reminded the other day of the value of celebrating mistakes rather than feeling guilty about them. Mistakes are good, right, not bad. That is how we learn, by making them in the first place.

I am always a bit nervous dealing with young people over major issues – how can they have made enough mistakes in their short lives to have any chance of getting my deal right?

We have a brilliant exception to this in our builder. When he built our house five years ago on a very steep section he was only 24 yet he had a team of 5 carpenters. He demonstrated real depth of understanding and a measured approach on first meeting, so unlike a typical 24-year-old.

Author, Robert Kiyosaki, is an advocate of celebrating mistakes in the school system, which is interesting. I don’t agree with him on a number of his other planks, one of which is to “buy gold”, but I do agree with him that there are one or two things that “schools kind of mess you up in”.

To quote Kiyosaki, “In school they teach you to not make mistakes, that mistakes mean you are stupid. But we are designed to make mistakes; babies learn to walk by falling over”.

I spent seven or eight years teaching mathematics in an Auckland secondary school and one of my tricks was to celebrate the answers students got wrong rather than the answers they got right. I told them if they got everything right then they hadn’t learned anything by taking the test. We needed to find them another test where they got things wrong, so we could dive in and learn.

In a ten-question quiz in my math class I would start by asking “Who got ten wrong?” They became the top student. And then we gave them a resounding round of applause. Everyone would join in. They thought having a wacky teacher was great. Something different in a mass of grey conformity. I would then put the ‘top student’ (did you get it?) with the one that didn’t make any mistakes (the bottom student) to see if they could help each other. It didn’t always work. But the message was worth its weight in gold. Mistakes can be good, if one is willing to learn from them.

It is the same at work. We get something wrong, it affects a client in some way and we are embarrassed. We feel guilty. If I can catch it in time I will try and turn it around in our head, as quick as I can. “We are never wrong if we learn from our mistakes”.

The beauty of creating a culture that accepts mistakes as normal is that people are much more likely to volunteer up the details. Mistakes are much less likely to be hidden. Mistake-makers learn faster because they feel better and see the mistake as valued. Mistakes get fixed quicker. We tell each other it is the mistakes we don’t discover that are the problem.

Kiyosaki has two other thoughts on the education system that I suspect used to be prevalent. “Don’t get help because that would be cheating.” In fact, successful people have a great team around them that they feed off all the time - the best advisers, the best helpers, the best mentors, the best technology, the best hair dressers.

The other thing schools used to teach was that there was only one right answer whereas in real life there are multiple ‘right’ answers, most of the time.

Schools are hugely improved since my time on the three fronts I’ve discussed above. It is great watching our ten-year old doing things differently at school to what was best practice in our day. Each new generation brings in massive improvements in all sorts of areas.

Keep asking great questions …

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