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The Power of Mistakes to create possibilities

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By Jonathan Milne, Managing Director of The Learning Connexion

Second in the TLC Super Powers series

Alice Neel (1900-1984), an American artist who should be better known, said “You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is... unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.”

The same could be said about mistakes.

Health and safety warning: Stupid mistakes can be fatal. Do not try to jump from a very high place without a parachute.*

It’s worth remembering that scientists call ‘mistakes’ research. For example, they will test thousands upon thousands of possible vaccines, and possibly every one of them will fail. Each ‘failure’ provides information about what doesn’t work and perhaps a clue to the next experiment.

The renowned Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Edison kept looking. He had plenty of foibles – that’s often how it is with creative people – but ended up with 1093 patents (still a record). He had an impressive way of responding to calamity. On 10 December 1914, a huge fire destroyed much of his workshop – the damage amounted to about $24 million in today’s terms (see photo below).


According to a 1961 Reader's Digest article by Edison's son Charles, Edison calmly told him "Go get your mother and all her friends. They'll never see a fire like this again." When Charles objected, Edison said, "It's all right. We've just got rid of a lot of rubbish."

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Thomas Edison

There's another big question to explore. What’s wrong with being right?

Many of our institutions, including education, put heavy emphasis on being right. Does it really make a difference to the world if you win prizes for getting high marks in exams? Does it matter if you’re not so good at being right in subjects that don’t interest you?

What if your particular focus doesn’t fit the school model? Maybe you couldn’t care less about spelling and algebra, but you’re passionate about exploring the way the natural world seems to achieve balance and also manages to evolve and change?

Is it right to side-line a student who is dedicated to something that doesn’t fit an orthodox career pattern? Are there inspectors who can truly figure out what society needs in the next few years?
The Edison story suggests that it matters to persist, keep asking questions, and to take on board any new possibilities from each thing that doesn’t work.

In current jargon this is called ‘adaptive learning’. At TLC we call it creativity.

Creativity involves decisions in areas that keep changing. You probably won’t make it as an artist by doing what is already being done. Everything is a state of flow and we have to adapt. The big deal with nature is evolution. Humans are a dimension of nature. We don’t have a particular right to succeed – we have to figure out how we can make a difference and plunge into our own particular area of exploration.

TLC isn’t your usual school. We’re not saying that we have a neat set of skills that will somehow take you to nirvana. We do have a culture in which people share experiences and tactics. Along with our students we keep looking at what hasn’t worked and figure what to try next. Mistakes are essential to learning, well-being and lifelong growth.

Everything starts to change when you take a constructive approach to so-called mistakes. Think of them as information – neither good nor bad. And think about what you might do next.

The biggest part of ‘success’ is not in a mysterious locked treasure chest – much of it is within you already and it’s waiting to be connected with your curiosity and your willingness to keep searching for what works. When you find it, you don’t stop – you’ve learned how to grow and how to get the best out yourself.

*And don’t do that unless you’ve learned how to use it.

Episode 02: The Power of Mistakes to Create Possibilities - YouTube 


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