Can We Stop Pretending We Should Not Make Mistakes?

“We’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes, but I can’t live that way…”

I think about those lyrics from Natasha Bedingfield’s classic song “Unwritten” all the time. But then it sparks an inner debate that I still cannot quite settle. How much should we strive for perfection, and how much can we allow ourselves to screw up?

When I was younger, my father introduced me to an acronym he christened DIRTFOOT — “Do It Right The First Time.” To really push his point, he wrote it out in pen — the most permanent of all writing utensils, as a famous yellow sponge once mused. From then on, erasers were banned at the homework table. You had to strive to use the wrong end of your pencil as little as possible — if never.

Looking back, I see it was more of a measure to take careful steps in problem solving. But it still made me afraid of making mistakes. Starting over on a wrong math problem was a waste of time — something that could have been avoided if I had just been more careful. If one misstep occurred, then the entire problem was wrecked — start over, and do it right, this time, for God’s sake.

And yet, here I am, working in a profession that thrives on mistakes. Don’t worry; despite my father’s best and most desperate efforts, I’m still the fumbling eraser/backspace-user I was in childhood.

I think we all have an innate fear of judgment. Even those who proclaim their fearlessness at making fools of themselves have the smallest fear of winding up a comment section laughingstock. Or, in a more realistic sense, that the smallest mistake will irreparably upset someone.

Sometimes, it takes a stupid amount of time to ask a question, for fear of looking incompetent or ignorant. For instance, we’ve all had that teacher who expects us to know everything, and when we need help, they get angry that we wasted their time with a “dumb” question.

As a teacher, I always assert that no question is dumb. Because questions are, for the most part, honest. Judging a question as dumb actually wastes more time than a student — or any person, for that matter — making an honest inquiry.

I can also attest that, even if someone asks a lot of questions — and they might just as easily look this stuff up on the Internet — they trust you, an actual human being, with your wisdom and insight. It might be tiresome, but you’re taking part in another person’s learning opportunity. And that is a beautiful thing!

In fact, I center my freshmen composition classes around one principle: to not freak out if you mess up the first time. Writing is a skill that takes years to master — if one can ever truly master it — so not producing something great the first time is nothing to fret about. Once I give students the tools to do better next time, then that is what they usually do.

If someone is afraid to mess up, they expect to be punished for it. But in most situations where a mistake is punished, it does not need to be. Rather than reacting with anger or disappointment toward mistakes, and creating a learning stasis, we need to give people the tools to be excited about improving.

Perfection does not exist anywhere on Earth. So we should stop expecting it, especially the first time around.