Sunday, November 23, 2014

Learning from Mistakes

A couple of weeks ago, we had this great entertainer at our school Alex Zerbe, and he did all of these wacky and amazing stunts.  During the question period at the end, someone asked him how long it took to learn his tricks, and he said something astonishing.  One trick took him eight years to get.

Eight YEARS.

I think of people today and we have such short attention spans.  If we can't get something fast (say 8 seconds), we Google it or we give up and move on.  To have this young guy say he spent eight years (taking time out for sleep and food) working on a 30 second stunt was more amazing than any of his tricks. 

In recent years, I've read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work about Flow and getting in the sweet spot where you don't want to give up, or Malcolm Gladwell's essays about 100,000 hours to master something.  I think that these are interesting ideas, but are somewhat incomprehensible to kids because they are a bit abstract (Flow) or unfathomable (100,000 hours at something).   But Zerbe put it in perspective when he said about the 8 years, "Failure is temporary."

So many times, kids (and adults) expect themselves to be perfect right out of the gate.  But to think that failure is temporary is like the story about Michelangelo.  When asked, after he completed the statue of David, how he accomplished such an incredible sculpture, Michelangelo is quoted as saying, "I just removed everything that didn't look like David."  Rodin said something similar in that every piece of marble already had the figure within; all he had to do was find out what it was.  I like to think that every student is that amazing piece of art, and that education is the process that chips away to define what each being is. 

And each of those chips includes mistakes we've made along the way.  Mistakes are essential to learning.  One summer as a kid, my family spend two weeks at a lake water-skiing.  On our way home, I pointed out to my dad that I did not fall once .  He then pointed out to me that I didn't get any better throughout the week because I played it so safely.  We was right.  I didn't want to make any mistakes so I kept the boat slow, and didn't go outside the wake.  The next summer, I made all kinds of mistakes.  I fell, I skittered over the surface of the water, I konked myself on the head with the back of my ski, I got rope burn, and I had a lot more fun.  I pushed myself way more and didn't worry about falling in.  I took more risks and found out more about what I was able to do. 

I love it when kids get immersed in learning, and don't worry about making mistakes or looking foolish.  Imaginative play is the perfect opportunity for learning without ego.  Kids go as far as they can and experiment, making up rules as they go and adjusting them along the way. 

Similarly, some of my favourite geniuses have that childlike, playful nature to their work and to their life-long learning: Fred Astaire, Richard Feynman, Tommy Emmanuel, the Dalai Lama .  All of them don't take themselves too seriously and have this impish smile on their faces as they take on some super-human challenges.  They have so much fun, and it's like they are privy to a wonderful secret, and they inspire people like me find out what that secret is. 

And make a pile of mistakes along the way.