I have been sitting in front of this blank screen, trying to recall my earliest memory of having made a mistake. (I don’t mean mistakes like offending someone or lying, but just…messing up. Getting something wrong. Being off my game, just slightly.) I’m not exactly sure, but I’ve kept quite a catalogue over the years. I have been mining those memories, trying to pinpoint the moment when I began to fear mistakes and failure.
- The time I mixed up a rule while playing a board game, and my opponent said, “You are a cheater.” I think that was the moment I began to believe that a mistake was equivalent to a character flaw.
- The time when writing my spelling words 3 times each in the fifth grade, when I dotted every “i” with a heart, and my teacher made me write the letter “i” 50 times.
- The third grade recess pant-wetting incident.
- That time at the mall when I stepped on the hem of my long denim skirt, exposing my little girl underwear to the crowd nearby.
- That time in high school when I tried to merge too late, and the truck didn’t see me.
- That one time during my internship when I was teaching a math lesson and suddenly could not remember the answer to 7×9, not to save my life.
- The countless times I fell while rollerblading, when I missed shots in basketball, when I let my car go too long before changing the oil, when I let the meat in the fridge go bad.
I don’t know, guys. There are a lot of mistakes.
I used to think I was the only person in the world experiencing this daily, frequent barrage of small errors and missteps.
Sometimes, when my perfectionism and achiever-self is getting the better of me, Evan will jokingly call me “99.3”. This is a reference to the one time I complained to him that my final grade in a college course was a 99.3, not 100, because I had missed one question on one quiz one time.
I’ve begun to realize over time the number of activities and opportunities I have sat out of or missed out on because I was too afraid of failure. I admit that this is the primary reason I never learned to ride a bike. Yes, I have terrible balance and equilibrium issues, but at some point I grew embarrassed by the number of times I fell of the bike.
I am not good at letting go mistakes, and I am not good at confronting the possibility of failure.
My first (and only) year teaching, my students and I wrote a class pledge instead of rules, and one of the tenants of our pledge was, “I can make mistakes.” One of our classroom mantras was, “Mistakes are an opportunity to learn.”
I wanted to create a culture when we celebrated mistakes, because they meant something new was learned. Yet, I usually locked myself in my office at the end of every school day and cried. I cried over every lesson that didn’t go as planned, every activity I didn’t scaffold well, every less-than-positive interaction with students. I cried over the behavior I couldn’t control, the instructional methods I felt stifled by, the less-than-perfect performance evaluations.
I wonder if my students could tell that while I talked about the value of mistakes, I didn’t believe any of it.
Sometimes, lessons are learned in lightning-flash, lightbulb moments. But more often in my life, the truth is revealed through a slow-but-steady, tortoise-like process. I learn through one million conversations, through stories and articles read, through experiences collected, through questions asked and ideas pondered over time. And I’d be lying if I said to you that I am ok with my mistakes all the time; I’m just not. I sobbed in bed the other night, feeling horribly guilty and ashamed about the way I yelled at Ian earlier that day.
Still, some of my proudest parenting moments have been those when Ian catches me in the midst of a mistake and offers me the same encouragement I’ve offered him in the past. Maybe the truth is getting through after all! I am reminded that the best hope I have of raising children comfortable with failure is to be a parent comfortable with failure.
Slowly, slowly, slowly, I am learning to actually live like I believe this idea that I know—intellectually—to be true. I’m really not there yet. But teaching helped. And parenting helps.
I set out to be a teacher, but as usual, it’s the children in my life who are teaching me.
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” —Neil Gaiman
All month long, I’m sharing 31 ways to fight perfectionism, as part of the Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts in this series here (or by clicking the “31 Days” button at the top of this page). Tomorrow, I’ll share why the words “I need…” have become an essential part of my vocabulary.