This article was originally written by Michael Hall - gently edited by The Coaching Room
How about this for a New Year’s Resolution: “I will make more learnable mistakes this year!” After all, success comes to those who are willing to make mistakes— they make mistakes that they can learn from. How about you? How open or bold are you about making mistakes and learning from them? Those who are most successful know this truth. They know that the more mistakes, and the quicker you make them, and the more you learn from them— the more successful you will be.
This is “trial and error” learning. You try something, you make errors along the way, you examine the errors, you get feedback, you make corrections, you try again. This is experiential learning and not the stale and stagnant form of academic learning where you fear making mistakes, fear looking foolish, fear getting an X-mark on your paper. Experiential learning is the learning of anyone with a true scientific mindset and who is willing to experiment in order to see what will happen. Then what others may call a mistake, you call an experiment. What others fear as lowering their sense of self-value, you look upon as an expression of being a practical scientist in the laboratory of life.
So as a new year’s resolution, decide that you will lean into mistakes so that you can learn from them and use them as the foundation of your developing success.
When Robert Sternberg wrote about his lifetime study of “intelligence” and discovered that what most so-called I.Q. tests actually measure is not intelligence, but past achievements (learning achievements), he began exploring intelligence and eventually wrote about many different kinds of intelligence, especially practical intelligence and creative intelligence. He noted this:
“Every once in a while, a great thinker comes along— a Freud, a Piaget, a Chomsky, or even an Einstein— and shows us a new way to think. That is not to say that great thinkers never make mistakes. On the contrary making mistakes is inevitable when you’re exploring new territory. But they learn from their mistakes—or enable us to learn from them.” (Successful Intelligence, 1996, p. 202)
How different all of this is from the way most of us were “educated” in school. The problem with most schools is that they are unforgiving of mistakes. Teachers are trained to mark errors with a large red X as they cross things out. In the earlier grades, if you color outside of the lines, each color that transgressed the line is first circled and then X-ed out. And once you were in the class where grades started, for every mistake your grade was marked down a notch. And what do we learn from all of that? One main and big point— It is not okay to make mistakes! Mistakes are bad. Mistakes mean you are stupid. Mistakes means you are a dumb-dumb. So never, but never make a mistake.
With learnings like that, most children are conditioned to not experiment, to not try out new skills or new ideas, to not take risks, to not go against conventional wisdom, to not speak up. To the contrary, we learn to play it safe, to please the teacher, to conform. So when the school and when teachers insist that we get the “right” answers and do so in the “right” way of doing things and of thinking, they train us and condition us for conformity, not creativity.
Yet at the heart of creativity is the willingness to take the risk and to make mistakes. It is to embrace mistakes and lean into them in order to learn from them. So, are you ready to learn and learn?
To lean into a mistake as a Meta-Coach— start with a good attitude. Begin by adopting an attitude of respect and care for your client, believing that every client has the resources to face life and that you are there to facilitate them discovering their potentials so they can create the quality of life they desire. Knowing that, then consider that whatever you do in the coaching conversation, whether it succeeds or not, is an experiment. You are simply testing things to see what will work best for your client. So also is your client.
In other words, you and your client cannot fail, you can only find out what works and what doesn’t work, and what only partially works. And with every experiment, both you and your client can be learning things— new things, new possibilities, new ways of facilitating. The feedback you receive about what works and what doesn’t then gives you new distinctions which you can use to keep shaping your competencies as a coach.
Resolve then to lean into the mistake in order to harvest from it the very distinctions that will make you even more effective, even more professional. It will make you a great learner. Here’s to your accelerated learning!