Why You Should Try to Make Mistakes

Why we should try to make mistakes.

Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for creative people.

Hi again, I’m your host, Marie Greene, and today I want to talk about mistakes.

We all make them, and try as we might, sometimes we make the same mistakes more than once! But instead of beating ourselves up for not getting it right, what if we could redefine them? What if mistakes were really just… practice? And a necessary part of our practice, too?

I’ve spent decades trying to avoid making mistakes. I mean, who DOESN’T try to avoid mistakes? It feels great when you’re good at something, and it feels pretty gross when we’re not.

And I’ve always thought of failures as the quiet, invisible things that you hide. Or maybe you hide FROM them. But whatever you do, you want to put as much distance between you and that failure as humanly possible. Immediately. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.

Mistake? Never heard of her.

So when I read the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, I was mostly looking for ways to make peace with my inability to get things right every time. To me, failure felt like a waste of time. Like a waste of my energy. Surely all that time I’ve spent failing at things could have been put to much better use.

Or… could it?

So many of the beautiful and innovative things that exist today are a response to a problem – or a response to a failure. But we often forget that a big part of the creative process lives in that problem phase.

  • It’s figuring out the issue.
  • It’s making mistakes.
  • It’s troubleshooting.

And what follows is the part of the creative process that involves trying and failing. And trying some more. And failing some more. And as I talk about mistakes in this episode, I’m not talking about life-altering mistakes or crimes or anything serious – we’re talking about the kinds of mistakes we’re all making all the time, but desperately trying to avoid – especially creative mistakes.

With each failure, we learn something. We may be learning about what DOESN’T work, but it’s still information we didn’t have when we started. And can we really call that a waste of time? Is it a waste of our energy just because we didn’t arrive at our result? OR is there value in there? Is there value in that process, even when it’s messy and filled with mistakes?

We’ve learned to focus so much on the result – the big AHA! Moment – that we miss all the failures that had to happen to make that big revelation possible.

There was a specific story in the book that inspired this episode – he spoke of a ceramics teacher who divided his students into two groups: one group was assigned quantity of pots. They would be graded by the sheer number of pieces they made throughout the term. The second group would be graded by one perfect pot; they were graded on quality. At the end of the term, the results were indisputable: the group who had been assigned the QUANTITY (not quality), had the most significant improvement in their skills. While one group was busily churning out the highest quantity of pots, they were simultaneously getting BETTER at their skills. And it’s almost as if it happened in SPITE of themselves. They weren’t focused on perfection, but by virtue of creating countless imperfect pots, they actually got better with every one. Meanwhile the group who had focused solely on creating one perfect pot, spent so much of their time thinking and planning – instead of DOING – that their results weren’t nearly as good.

And I think the lesson here – for all of us – is that when we try too hard NOT to make a mistake – when we label mistakes as a waste of our time – we are keeping ourselves from growing.

I see this so much in fiber arts – makers will be so worried about a mistake that they’ll avoid trying new things or expanding outside their comfort zones because they’re not sure what they’ll do if something goes wrong.

The truth is – things are going to go wrong. Any person who is trying to stretch their skills or learn new things or get out of their rut is going to have to try a few things that don’t work. That’s the problem phase; that’s a critical part of the creative process.

If you’re not failing sometimes, then you’re probably stuck and not growing.

What’s interesting, too, is how we respond when we do make a mistake.

If a mistake means that we – ourselves – are failures – then of course we’re going have a really hard time owning (or learning from) those mistakes. Of course we’ll be avoiding them at all costs. I don’t want be a failure! Nobody wants to be a failure.

But do I fail sometimes? Yes. And so do you. And so do we all.

We have to recognize that mistakes are part of our practice. There isn’t a single person in history that arrived at a groundbreaking revelation or work of art without having experienced some failures along the way. It’s inevitable.

So how do we reframe mistakes and failure in a way that feels less gross?

First – recognize that we’re all making mistakes all the time. We just are. We’re human, and we will inevitably get things wrong sometimes.But most of us aren’t featuring our mistakes in our highlight reels, right? So we’re not seeing everyone’s mistakes all the time – we’re seeing everyone’s big achievements. But just because we don’t see the years of struggle and practice and learning and the failures along the way doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. People put their trophies on shelves, not their parking tickets. So don’t compare yourself to what anyone else is doing or achieving. Their highlight reel isn’t the whole story – if anything, it’s the finish line of a marathon that involved an awful lot of messy practice.

Second – remember that failure isn’t the whole story. Those ceramics students didn’t stop after one or two crappy pots. If they had, that would have been the end of their story. But instead, they were empowered to make a lot of crappy pots, and because of that, they had permission to keep going even when they were seemingly surrounded by what others might have called failures. But because they had a different definition of what success looked like – For them, success was to make as many pots as possible, those failures didn’t carry any weight. They were just practice. And instead of feeling disappointed in their skills when the pot was lopsided or a little too thick or thin, they could celebrate it anyway because a pot is a pot. Where are you in your creative journey that you might be judging a current failure as the end of the story, when really you’re still in the messy middle? If you’re still making mistakes, you’re still trying and I am proud of you. Look at every effort you make as one of those ceramic pots, it’s just one more practice piece. Those practice pieces are essential to the creative process.

Third – mistakes are the best teachers. Now, I’ve said this before, but I really want you to hear it. We don’t become better at our art unless we’re willing to fail. We have to. Because there’s no possible way to grow past where you are right now without trying things that aren’t guaranteed. Things you haven’t done before, or might not fully know how to do. Tell me something you’re good at that you were perfect at immediately at all times. Is there anything? Because even the things that I’m really good at, that I would consider my superpowers – I’ve still made mistakes and had failures as I worked to improve or take those skills in a new direction.

One of the things I teach my knitting students is that if they want to be a sweater knitter, they will need to knit sweaters. Not just one sweater. But many sweaters.

The first sweater you knit won’t be your best one. The size might be weird. Your neckline might be too wide or too tight. You might have chosen the wrong yarn for it, but didn’t realize it until it was too late. Your first sweater will be your teacher. And so will your second one. And your third.

I have knit hundreds of sweaters in my lifetime, and I still learn something new when I knit the next one. There’s always something. If you’re not afraid to make a mistake, then you can do anything. Try anything. Experiment. Get messy. Because you recognize that whatever happens next – mistake or not – you can pivot. You can figure it out when you get there. I think that’s the big lesson here – if you’re afraid to make a mistake because you don’t know what you’ll do when you get there, how will you ever learn what to do? I know how to fix mistakes in my knitting because I’ve made mistakes. And then I looked at them – I didn’t avoid them – I stared at them. I learned them from them. And every new thing I learned made me that much more confident that I could figure out the next thing.

You can figure out what to do when you get there, and then that’s one new thing you know how to do.

In the book Black Box Thinking, Mr Syed quotes James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner guy), as saying this:

“People think of creativity as a mystical process. The idea is that creative insights emerge from the ether, through pure contemplation. This model conceives of innovation as something that happens to people, normally geniuses. But this could not be more wrong. Creativity is something that has to be worked at…”

I would offer that “working at creativity” means accepting, and embracing, and redefining mistakes as part of that process. I know it’s hard to celebrate yourself when something goes sideways. But really – that’s what we should be doing.

You tried something. You put yourself out there. It didn’t work. But now you have more information and you probably have an idea for what to try next. It was good practice, and that’s it. It doesn’t have to mean anything about you or what you’re capable of, and it most certainly isn’t the end of the story.

My challenge to you is to redefine what it means to make a mistake – it means you’re trying. Consider yourself the ceramic student who’s assigned to make as many pots as possible, no matter how imperfect. Every mistake is one step closer to the outcome you want, and if you spend your energy trying to avoid it, you’ll stay stuck. Don’t be stuck. Expect mistakes as part of the creative process, learn what you can, and keep going.

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Until next time my friend – you’ve got this.

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