Mistakes Are Awesome

Mistakes are your best friend. Effective practice and growth would be impossible without mistakes – if you cultivate a healthy relationship to them.

 

Often, when learning a new skill, folks will be embarrassed by how awkward their initial attempts are. In teaching both music and Primal practice, I constantly run in to students who tell me “I just don’t have good ears”, or “my body doesn’t move like that”, as if the ability to distinguish a minor 6th by ear or do a handstand is something you’re endowed with at birth. Often, when we try new stuff and they stumble, they’ll look at me as if to say “see? I told you I couldn’t do that.”

 

This is a mode of thinking that comes from focusing on the advanced manifestations of a skill as opposed to the process that leads you there. Naturally, it can be intimidating to watch someone do a handstand if you’ve never put weight on your hands before and popped your feet off the ground- I certainly felt a degree of insecurity around my first attempts at balancing upside down, or improvising over jazz standards, especially in front of more experienced people. It’s important to realize, however, that those more experienced people are just that – more experienced. Nobody ever stuck a handstand on their very first try. Nobody ever took a blazing solo over Joy Spring after only ever playing Zeppelin tunes. Skills are built over time, step by step, piece by piece. Anyone with any demonstrable skill was once an absolute beginner, and by slowly mastering fundamental components, built their way up to where they are now.

 

There’s a part of your mind that’s designed specifically to identify weaknesses. It can be dangerous if you take it too seriously. The tendency to compare oneself as a beginner to others who have been practicing longer is natural, but not necessarily useful. It disregards the process in between, and can lead to erroneously negative self-judgment and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. Recognizing this tendency, we can reorient our relationship to this part of our mind, and it becomes very useful.

 

With an inquiry-based approach to learning, mistakes are your best asset, your best teacher. Recognize the tendency to interpret mistakes as evidence to yourself that you suck, and how much you’re shooting yourself in the foot by doing so. Mistakes give you information, and based on that information, you can adjust what you’re doing so you don’t make the same mistake next time. Welcome mistakes with open arms, curiosity, and a sense of humor. Working with this attitude, practice becomes a lot more fun, there’s less frustration and therefore more ease, which leads to more efficiency and deeper perception, which leads to positive discoveries and enhanced performance.

 

A recent study (read a great article on it here) at the University of Texas at Austin sought to identify the most effective strategies employed by pianists attempting to learn a difficult passage of music. The crux of their findings was that the most effective practice came not from overall time invested or repetitions performed, but from immediately recognizing errors, identifying their underlying cause, and adjusting appropriately. From there, the most successful players in the study played through the problem area very slowly and correctly until it came with ease. Success came from looking for the error, identifying and correcting it, then drilling in the correct performance of that little piece through repetition.

 

Mistakes are awesome, if you take the time to listen to what they have to say.