I’ve been taking an online course called “How to Learn Math.” It’s actually targeted towards parents and teachers, but I’m taking it even though I’m neither. The third lesson in the course is about mistakes and persistence.

Image by http://366coolthings.tumblr.com/

Image by http://366coolthings.tumblr.com/

The instructor spoke about the important role mistakes play in learning and brain growth. Every time you make a mistake, you grow a new synapse. This brain growth doesn’t happen when you do something right the first time. As the instructor puts it, “Mistakes are the most useful thing you can be doing.”

That’s a really powerful idea.

I’m often able to laugh at myself when I make mistakes (now I’m talking about life, not just math). But I don’t know that I’ve ever gone so far as to frame mistakes as the most useful thing. If you look at it that way, we should be actively seeking out opportunities to make mistakes.

So now I’m on a mission to make more mistakes. It seems like it should be an easy task, right? It’s surprisingly difficult, though. I’ve realized how much I go out of my way to avoid embarrassment, failure, or even the discomfort of not knowing something. Additionally, I’m generally drawn to projects for which I have some natural talent, and tend to overlook projects that would cause me to stretch.

Here are some strategies I’ve found useful for seeking out opportunities to make some mistakes:

  • Listen for the I can’t, I don’ts, and I’m nots. I hear myself saying things like, “I’m not very athletic, “I can’t draw,” and “I don’t like to do research.” I’m training myself to red flag any kind of “fixed mindset” statement like that, and consider it a challenge.

  • Practice saying “yet”—as in, “I’m not good at this yet.” This may feel like a mental trick you’re playing on yourself, but it works. Just adding that little word can actually change how you feel about something—it may make you feel more optimistic, hopeful, or determined.

  • Go big. I like big ideas, and I’ve found that leaning in to something can help me fully commit. For example, rather than saying to myself, “Maybe I’ll take a class and get better at art,” I find it more compelling to say, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I started making art and opened my own Etsy shop?” Audacity can be thrilling.

What have you done to seek out opportunities for mistakes?

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