Steve Jobs had a reputation for not releasing a product until it was “perfect”. He knew what he wanted and didn’t stop until that ideal was achieved. Decidedly, he had to make a lot of bad attempts before the perfect product was achieved, but did any of those bad attempts equal a mistake?
Mistakes have a bad reputation. Many schools have actually banned red ink because of the fear that pointing out mistakes with red ink would lead to increased stress and lower self-esteem.Standardized tests have increased the negative connotation of mistakes as high test scores have increased in value – at least to school districts and administrators. But the score of the test tends to be where the mistake stops. Instead of viewing a mistake as a learning opportunity for students, mistakes have come to be viewed as a flaw on the part of the teacher or even of the student. A test with a lot of mistakes threatens the reputation of child and teacher, rather than signal that the child just doesn’t get it and may need additional help understanding the subject matter. On top of that, multiple choice tests do not allow teachers to see the thought processes of the students, making it harder for them to try to figure out where the students’ understanding of the subject matter breaks down.
Case in point: my journey learning math. The entire time I was learning math when I was in school, the entire process seemed arbitrary – except for addition and subtraction. And I kind of understood the point for multiplication and division, but that took me a while. Once I got to algebra my understanding of why I was doing what I was doing disappeared. I understood how to do algebra; I didn’t understand why. Once I hit trigonometry my understanding of how and why was non-existent. I failed trig, and I never attempted to try again. I was completely convinced that I was horrible at math. Now I watch my 16 year old daughter taking pre-calculus and dreaming of being an architect and I wish that I had understood math as well as she does. When you get to the core of it, math is so beautiful and helps us understand so much of the world around us – if you understand it. I think about all of the pioneers of algebra and calculus and I wonder how many mistakes they made before they got it right. And think about the creativity that had to be involved! Each of those pioneers had to think outside the box to come up with the math that we teach in schools today – no one had come up with it yet. Imagine what would have happened if they had gotten it wrong and had been hit by the negative stigma that mistakes carry today.
One of the hallmarks of true creativity and creative genius is the ability to see mistakes not as something negative to be frowned upon or avoided at all costs, but as a stepping stone to the right answer. As I have been writing this post, it has occurred to me that a better way to describe a mistake would be as an attempt. An attempt to get to the right answer or to create the best that you can. There may be bad attempts along the way, and there may be good attempts, but in the end there will be something that has been created or understood through learning about what it is that is being attempted. And the most wonderful part is that the learning process is continual. More knowledge can always be gained in order to understand and create even more. If Steve Jobs had simply stopped when he created the first Mac, we wouldn’t have all of the great Apple products that we have today. But creativity tends to build on itself, and innovation is achieved through that building.
How many creative geniuses have we lost simply because we have stigmatized mistakes and valued right answers over understanding? I don’t think we will ever know, but I plan on changing my own vocabulary and mind frame. I believe I will substitute the word “attempts” for “mistakes”.