Chris Brogan linked to a post by his “Trust Agents” partner-in-crime Julien Smith about becoming child-like. In the post, he writes that the more we retain the adaptability and curiosity we are born into the world with, the better for both our business dealings and our day-to-day lives. I agree with this wholeheartedly. These traits, along with wonderment, sincerity and idealism, are sometimes considered “childlike” but, in my mind, retaining a healthy sense of each of these open our eyes to more of what the world has to offer — and more of what we can offer it.
Smith goes on to lay out some principles to train ourselves to remain flexible. But something that Smith wrote when explaining the third principle, “overcoming fear,” caught my eye:
But mistakes are the stuff of life– it’s how we learned not to touch the burner on the hot stove.
…there’s a real problem with the way we’re brought up. We learn by making mistakes, but those mistakes also teach us to fear a lot more than we need to. We need to find ways to absorb the idea that the worst will usually not (or never) happen. How can we do this?
Since Smith invited feedback to his post, I decided to oblige
I completely agree with what Smith says here about the need to make mistakes — it’s the only way we learn, whether it’s getting an answer wrong on the math test or scrubbing a project because it’s not working out as planned. Failing forward — I’m all about it.
But what got me is this sentence: “We learn by making mistakes, but those mistakes also teach us to fear a lot more than we need to.” I don’t think it’s making a mistake that necessarily makes us afraid — and I think this is an important clarification to make — it’s people’s reactions to our mistakes that make us afraid. If I screw something up, how I feel about it will largely depend on how other people feel about it. If my boss freaks out and yells at me, I’m going to feel a lot worse — and a lot more gunshy the next time — than if my mistake is met with understanding and a constructive conversation about how to learn from it and move on.
That’s not to say that all mistakes should receive some sort of a passive reaction — you wouldn’t just sit back and let a child touch the burner on the hot stove and then chat with them about it afterward. But the reaction can be firm, if necessary, while not being discouraging. More often than not, fear is bred from an expectation of the consequences of doing wrong. But what if we stop treating mistakes as something done wrong? A mistake is simply one of the possible consequences of trying. The more we can make mistakes into learning opportunities rather than opportunities for recrimination, the more we can re-channel fear into motivation.
So, how do we do this? It’s easier said than done. We can’t always choose our bosses. We can’t control how people react to what we do or don’t do. But to the best of our ability, we can seek nurturing environments. We can encourage cultures that are supportive, not reactive. We can set an example and hope for the best. We can steel ourselves against those who try to bring us down for our mistakes with the knowledge that we will learn and do better work next time. It is not ideal, but we can do something to counter the fear and turn mistakes into opportunities.
One last point: Smith also says that human beings are “naturally submissive.” I’m not sure how much I buy this. Going back to the crux of Smith’s post — the point that we need to regain a childlike sense of adaptability and curiosity — what about a childlike sense of fearlessness? Where there is fearlessness, there is entrepreneurship, experimentation, free thinking and speaking. Perhaps that is another childlike quality we should try to hold onto.
Photo by Fabien Belcourt via Flickr