Making mistakes

I am making many mistakes this year, almost continuously. It’s a good thing.

I am learning two new skills right now that I am bad at. And keep in mind, I am doing these things at age 62.

First off, my family received the gift of a 100-year old grand piano from a family friend. I am learning to play it. I am very bad.

But I am less bad than I was when I started a few months ago.

I have no music background — none. I have no talent, unless you count badly singing along with the radio. There is no reason to think I will become good at this, except that I plan to keep at it.

I am working on a piece right now that is about 4 minutes long. I have yet to play it flawlessly. I make lots of mistakes and they are instantly audible. Everyone in my family knows when I am practicing because, well, grand pianos make loud sounds. And my whole family is here nearly all the time. I am not used to making this many mistakes this publicly.

But nobody cares if I am a good piano player but me. My goal is not to make a living as a piano player, or even to be entertaining at parties (when we can have parties again). My goal is simply to get better.

I am enjoying learning how music works. It feels to me like I am learning very slowly, but my music teacher (who was a good friend when we were both in high school a very long time ago) has been reassuring.

I have never had a hobby before now, unless you count collecting books or interacting on social media or blogging. It is good to have this huge old thing in my house that makes musical sounds.

I am also learning to program in Python. I last wrote code in 1978, when the languages were BASIC, FORTRAN, and, ahem, PDP-11 assembler language. I wrote on systems including an Apple ][, a teletype with paper tape, dumb terminals, and punched cards. That was something like 15 generations of computers ago.

A former colleague once told me that if we engineered airplanes the way we engineer software, we would build a plane, fly it, crash it into the ground, and look at the wreckage to learn how to build the next version of the plane. I have been crashing my Python plane into the ground lots and lots of times. At least my family is not hearing my mistakes, although my daughter, an experienced Python programmer at age 21, is ready to help me.

Low stakes, constant feedback

I am sure I have always failed this frequently. (For example, I just misspelled “frequently” and had to retype it.) We all do. Every day we take a wrong step and stumble, put too much salt in the soup, misspell words we type, and say the wrong thing to someone we’re talking to. And we don’t worry about it.

The reason is that most of these systems are quick to show errors and easily corrected. You can recover from your stumble, add more broth to the soup, edit the misspelled word, correct what you’re saying, play the note again, debug the program. Nobody judges you. Your constantly adjusting mind takes note and you become better. Slowly, continuously, imperceptibly, you become better.

We don’t think of these things as mistakes because they’re just “life.” And because the stakes are low. But mostly because they don’t reflect on us.

When I hit a wrong note or misspell a word, I do not think, “I am a loser.” I just do it again and fix it.

It is the higher-stakes decisions that freak us out. The speech in front of 500 people. The report that everyone will read. The strategic plan for your business.

How do you get those high-stakes decisions right?

Practice a lot in low-stakes environments. Rehearse the speech. Revise the report. Research the report.

Get feedback from others. Learn to accept the feedback as helping to make the work product better (better speech, better report, better plan), not as a personal criticism. You are not your work.

From our first stumbling steps to our first day at work to our first published book, we are all making mistakes constantly. Once you recognize that, perhaps you can learn to accept the process, rather than judge yourself.

If you’re not learning something new, you’re probably dead. I encourage you to make lots of mistakes along the way. You’ll be in good company.

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  1. Josh, I loved this. Right now I am staring at a sticky note on my monitor that says ‘Mistakes are proof that you are trying’, so your theme resonated with me.
    I plan to try new things in 2021. The latest: I just signed up for the CS50 course on EDX: ‘Introduction to Computer Science’. I am at early stages, but the professor, David Moran is very approachable, and I can always hit ‘replay’ and listen again. My goal is to think in different ways, and come up with new ideas by connecting dots differently.

  2. Me too! I retired a couple of months ago and explicitly sought out new ways to fail. As kids, everything is new to us so we fail all the time. Adults: not so much is new, and we’re reluctant to suck and embarrass ourselves.

    I’m excited to be newly sucking at: exercise bootcamp with a bunch of younger and fitter people every morning, losing 30 lbs, I put on sitting at a desk or on airplanes throughout my career, playing my late-mom’s acoustic guitar and a fender stratocaster I got for my birthday 10 years ago but hardly picked up, visiting a bunch of national parks on my new motorcycle and then camping (which I haven’t done in 30 years). I hope to suck less at several of these things – and more – a year or two from now.

  3. I think it is also important to have a confessor to admit your blunders to. Somebody to share the humor of a dumb thing you just did. Someone who will comfort and not be critical or rub your bad feelings in, like when it’s a major thing. I’m an intelligent guy yet I have lost my keys and looked all over for them only to find them still stuck in the front door lock, and forgotten about the hard-boiled eggs on the stove until I’ve boiled away all the water. At the age of 62 when I’ve felt I’ve already learned a lot of lessons, I am amazed to see I am still learning new ones and adjusting my behavior for the next time I do something. If I had a nickel for every time I say “Thanks, Lord” for narrowly avoiding injury due to some error I’ve made…

  4. Good luck on your python adventure. My first job out of college was programming the Space Shuttle Mission Simulator in FORTRAN, and I did PDP-8 assembler in high school. Not surprisingly, languages have come a long way since then. I started in Python over a decade ago, when looking for a current language to pick up. I used a bit of it for analysis occassionally in my work, but nobody would likely hire me to be an efficient programmer. I’d say Stack Overflow is your friend whenever you have a question. There are other good resources, of course, but I find good answers quickly for almost all my questions there. I just completed the 2020 Advent of Code puzzle challenge (https://adventofcode.com/2020/about) using Python. As you continue your journey you may want to check it out.