The school year had begun. Students and their teachers were still checking each other out in eighth-grade math. “I give tough tests and I have no mercy,” our teacher, Mr. Barber, began. “Either you know the answers or you fail.” I could feel the fear building inside me. I glanced around the room, seeing some of my friends rolling their eyes as if to say “not again.” I sat confused. As much as I enjoyed learning mathematics, I hated the pain and pressure from the way it was taught and the stress presented by the teacher. The course was tough enough without him acting so macho. Why didn’t he motivate us by making it fun instead of driving us by fear?
Despite these methods, we all passed and proceeded to high school. What we studied that year I don’t really remember, but by the time I finished high school I had been through calculus, plane trigonometry, and spherical trigonometry. How much of that math do I use today? None. Today, could I solve those same problems for which I had studied so hard and had gotten the correct answers? No, I have to admit that I couldn’t.
Today I don’t use much of what I learned after the fifth grade. But that’s not to say school didn’t leave its permanent mark on me. The fact is, I left school with several behavioral traits I hadn’t walked in with. Engraved in my mind was the belief that making a mistake, or “screwing up,” got me ridiculed by my peers and often my teacher.
The Belief of Being Right
School brainwashed me into believing that if a person wanted to be successful in life, he or she had to always be right. In other words, never be wrong. School taught me to avoid being wrong (making mistakes) at all costs. And if you did happen to make a mistake, at least be smart enough to cover it up.
This is where all too many people are today – not allowing themselves to make mistakes and thus blocking their own progress. The symptoms of this “disease” are feelings of boredom, failure, and dissatisfaction, although most of us never come to understand why we feel this way. After having it drilled into us for so many years, ifs hard to imagine that being “right” could cause such unhappiness.
In 1981, I had the opportunity to study with Dr. R. Buckminster Fuller. Although I can’t quote him exactly, the first lesson I learned from him still sticks in my mind. He told us that humans were given a right foot and a left foot…not a right foot and a wrong foot. We make progress through our lives by advancing first with the right foot, then with the left. With each new step we both move forward and correct the prior step so that we come closer and closer to our destination. Most people, however, are still trying to walk the straight and narrow, avoiding mistakes and thus getting nowhere.
What’s Wrong With The Straight And Narrow Path?
Perhaps nothing except the fact that straight and narrow paths simply don’t exist in the real world. Not even physicists have ever found anything that is absolutely straight. Only curves have been found. Straight lines exist only in human minds.
In The Abilene Paradox, Jerry B. Harvey writes about the “paradox of paradoxes.” He explains the universal principle that “unity is plural.” Just as “up” cannot exist without “down,” or “man” without “woman,” a “right” cannot exist without a “wrong.” Similarly, people who can only be right eventually wind up being wrong. And people who are willing to risk making mistakes in order to discover what is “wrong” eventually end up knowing what is “right.”
In maturing as a businessperson, I have learned to be cautious of people who act as if they have all the right answers. At the same time, I have had to acknowledge my own over-zealous desire to be right. I had to learn that a person who stayed on his right foot too long would eventually end up on the wrong foot – or worse yet, with that foot in his mouth.
Allowing Yourself To Be Wrong
Allowing ourselves to be wrong, to make mistakes, isn’t easy. Think about how you feel when you hear the words “you’re wrong.” If you’re anything like me, you become defensive and try to think of ways to prove you are right. In my own struggles, as well as in working with thousands of other people on this issue, I continue to be amazed at how terrified we humans can become at the thought of being punished for being wrong. Our efforts to prove ourselves right are often carried to the extreme, destroying marriages, businesses, and friendships.
To finally discover that knowing the wrong answer can be the most powerful beacon we could ever hope to have, shining a brilliant light for us on the right answer, is greatly liberating. But to be able to enjoy the vast benefits of this insight we need to re-think how we handle mistakes; rather than punishing us for them, education should teach us the art of learning.
Our fear of making mistakes is so ingrained in us that we habitually react to our errors in ways that blind us to the real learning in them.
It will look like this: Avoiding Mistakes Is Getting You Nowhere