Authored by Jessica Parker-Farris
I’m on a personal mission to find joy! While on my journey, however, I’ve noticed that rather than being kind to myself, I often torment myself for my lack of perfection in all things. This caused me to ponder both the literal and possible unconscious semantics of one word I use quite frequently: mistake.
At the Lower School we now use Responsive Classroom when talking to our students, a common language that helps us communicate in a way that is clear, consistent, and constructive, thereby empowering students to evolve their growth mindset, to remove needless judgment, and to focus on new possibilities. In my classroom I frequently use the word mistake for just that, an opportunity for growth, and insist it can be something beautiful, referencing books like The Book of Mistakes and Beautiful Oops. (Just an fyi – the former is brilliant, great for folks of all ages, and has abruptly shifted many a 4th grader from wailing in defeat to literally jumping up and exclaiming, “I know what to do!”) But I still wonder if that choice of word, mistake, has its limitations.
Sometimes described as an “elder millennial,” I didn’t make positive associations with the word mistake during my childhood but rather incredible amounts of self-judgment, so much so that while I can be hopeful for my students, when the word is applied to myself, I can feel my entire nervous system screaming, “Oh no! You failure!” It hasn’t hurt that I’ve been seeing a therapist for the last couple of years. (If you haven’t tried professional help, can’t recommend it enough – Mental health is a part of health!) It’s thanks to these conversations with my therapist that I even have a new awareness of this quiet, yet oh-so-persistent voice of self-judgment in my head: you’re not _____ enough. (Think of a word, insert it there, and I’ve probably thought it!)
Turns out I’m not the only one. Thanks to a colleague’s recommendation, I recently checked out neuroscientist Beau Lotto while researching for lessons and listened to one of his TED talks. In his presentation he reminded me of our collective cognitive bias towards all things negative. Survival being top priority, our brains have evolved first to notice threats to our survival, meaning, we’re genetically conditioned to notice any perceived shortcomings, weaknesses, points of vulnerability. (Noticing good stuff is nice, but it doesn’t stop a lion from eating you!) And the unknown being infinite, there’s endless possibilities of what the mind can imagine to worry over. (Yay for creative types!) What’s worse, even if something is perfectly safe, if the nervous system misinterprets any stimuli as threatening, our brain still wants to play it safe and go into defensive mode, cutting off confidence, discovery, connection, and joy.
I know it’s important to “own” our mistakes. I do in fact make p-l-e-n-t-y of mistakes, but when Thomas Edison was continually testing to make the lightbulb work, I don’t think he told himself that he was failing or “mistaking” every time he got a result different than his desired outcome. Surely he wouldn’t have persisted? So when things go awry in my classroom, I try to ask myself, What might better yield the result I’m hopeful for this next go ‘round?
I’ve also learned I’m energized by curiosity, joy, creativity, and connection. We say failure makes us stronger, but that’s only true if we move past that “failure” and into what is at least perceived as “success.” I recently heard that celebrating success with others – with others being a vital component – is what actually helps us pair a positive association with any learning that occurs. Otherwise, our brains will instead form an association with all of the stress and exhaustion it takes to persevere through a challenge. Yikes! If that’s not a reason to connect, celebrate, build games and fun into your classroom, or have a drink with your colleague, I don’t know what is!
I recently took a quiz on the NYT’s called, “What kind of perfectionist are you?” and discovered even though I get excited and jump into projects, I often don’t finish them because I go to that self-critical place that brings the creativity and joy to a halt. In an attempt to hold myself accountable, last year I ended the last quarter sharing small works of art with Lower School Faculty via the weekly bulletin. I continually struggled with thoughts like, Oh you can’t share this week. You messed up this, this, and this. This value is wrong, the perspective is off here, and the composition needs to be rearranged like so to better facilitate the story point. I still have those thoughts – like while writing this post – and rightly so. I still believe in holding myself to high standards, but these thoughts were preventing me from exploring and connecting. I decided to create my own visual to remind myself to move past imperfection, connect with others, and move into new ideas. I called it, “The Three M’s,” which stand for make, meditate, and move on: create the work of art; meditate on how you would improve it if you wanted to invest more time; and allow yourself the grace to move on. I then realized this still left me largely focusing on what I wasn’t happy with in the composition, and so, without making an entirely new visual, I challenged myself to somehow include joy and resolved to incorporate the word celebrate! With just one moment of moving past that fear, doubt, and self-criticism, I was freed to connect with my Lower School community by finding joy in the ridiculousness and humor of the stories that sometimes occur while working at a school.
I recognize you may have no problem with the word mistake at all. You may even see strengths in using this word. These thoughts are in no way meant to be judgemental of other folks’ use of language but rather a question for personal reflection: what language might best help me continue to brave the unknown, might help me evolve into my best and most joyful self? It’s taken long enough, but I’ve finally reached the point in my life where I at least have the wisdom to know that what is helpful for others is not necessarily helpful for me – I have to take my own steps!
My current thoughts on that little word mistake are essentially this: If it is both impossible to achieve “perfection” and to avoid mistakes as the world is continually spinning, each moment new, class period unique, each student different from one moment to the next, if I’m different from one moment to the next, if that “misstep” is not only inevitable but the required yet unknowable step for any new discovery, growth, or reframing of knowledge, is it then truly a mistake or misstep at all or rather the necessary step to brave the unknown and form new meaning? A step of possibility? And if so, what language might honor and celebrate leaping into that uncertainty rather than inhibit it? I reflected on many neutral words like observation one, unintended discovery one, unknowable step one, and hopefully, eventually, desired outcome, but those are all rather unpoetic and uninspiring. For the time being, I’ve currently settled on jazz steps. Improvisational, there’s no way to know ahead of time, nor does that one step make or break the composition, but, as a whole, it bravely embodies movement, creativity, a little dissonance, and joy in the possibilities of the unknown.
I hope that you too continue to reflect and find language or practices that fill rather than deplete your cup, especially if curiosity, joy, and connection are what propel you forward…or to the right, or the left, or backward and forward again. You matter, and you’re all doing wonderfully hard, messy, beautiful things. Keep at it!
References that informed these thoughts:
Countless hours of therapy