One of the things that I’m getting better at in my thirties is my tolerance for mistakes. I’m actively pursuing some stuff to help with that, and there’s a reference to some lessons I’ve already learned that requires patience and, most importantly, what I would call ‘permission to fail’.
But it’s not easy to try something and know you might get it wrong. It’s even harder to watch other people struggle with lessons you’ve already learned (that’s also called good teaching). And it’s harder still to know when to ask for help, and when to intervene.
I had an interview recently for a job I really wanted. I won’t go into too much here given the public nature of my blog. Anyway, I applied to a few things in the recent past and one one occasion I got myself an interview. I was in the interview room and when asked a curveball* question, I froze.
My inner monologue went something like: “a time when I explained complex stuff to senior management… complex to management… complex… management… no, not that one; not that either… come on you’ve done that a hundred times, probably three times today… none of these examples fit… just pick one and make it fit… come on you’re great, you can do this… how about this one… no, it’s not good enough… too trivial, where’s the challenge? You want to show these people how great you are. Eugh, I suck, I suck, how long have I been thinking about this? What was the question again? Oh no, I’ve fucked it up. It must’ve been a full minute of silence by now and they’re just staring at their pads because they don’t want to look at me anymore… I should just go home… come on… focus focus focus… something about convincing management. Just start speaking… stop thinking and go. Now. Now. Right now. Do it. GO!”
(* it wasn’t that curveball. I’d just prepped for something else.)
How much easier would that have been if I’d stopped questioning every internal decision and run with something? Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get that one.
Interestingly, the interview in which I mostly spoke my thoughts aloud went much better (I even had a go at myself for going off piste).
As a teacher, and as a friend, I really struggle with letting people arrive at the right answer, or the right method. To me, it’s like watching someone try to type. My typing speed is very fast, something like 90 wpm on a good day and assuming no pentasyllabic words. (I love that word because it’s autological). But most of us just want to get to the end. It’s a patience thing. And it’s also a control thing. We’re not giving up enough control to let ourselves or others have a go and get it wrong. And in most cases in most scenarios, what the hell is wrong with that? Nature makes mistakes all the time. It’s how we adapt and evolve.
Even now, sitting here and advocating that we all take time to let others make mistakes now and then, I will still walk away and stick my hand in when I need to let others get it themselves. (An exception to this for me is my Japanese class, in which at times everyone is so reluctant to answer the teacher’s questions that sometimes 30 seconds goes by and I just have to do more than my share or we’ll be there until midnight.)
The first time I learned this lesson, I was learning stage combat. I was getting it pretty quickly, but my combat partner wasn’t. I intervened a few times and the expression on my partner’s face had been furrowed in concentration for the last ten minutes when my teacher finally took me aside and said “You need to let her get it wrong. She’s not ready for your help yet.”
In a recent improv class, the director of the course (I’m sure he’d either balk at my giving him that title or ask why he wasn’t referred to as Emperor or Queen) said he was sure no one in the room was the kind of person who’d go around telling people what they were doing wrong. An internal part of me opened its eyes and grunted a question: “you talkin’ ’bout me?” Uncomfortable. But in a way he was right – I’m not so much that person anymore. I’m getting better at waiting.
My new mantra for this is to broadly follow the rule, “don’t offer help or advice unless it’s asked for”. There are times when this is rude or counterproductive. YMMV and all that. But in general, I’ve quite successfully installed a filter over the desperate, teenage part of me that continues to exist and demand recognition for its awesomeness. “LOOKIT! I can do it! Me, right here – I can do all the things.” And understanding both the who and why of what I’m doing is a great way to shut that guy up.
That same inner teenage monster guy is the reason I don’t let myself fail. Because other people might see and then they’ll think you suck.
Who likes the person who never makes a mistake? Not me. They can fuck right off. People who make mistakes are endearing. We understand their anxieties and flaws. We share in the pain and lessen it and take comfort in the fact that none of us needs to be perfect.
You’re imperfect just the way you are. And I love it. So go fail more.