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The value of making mistakes
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Pass it on
I'm reading
The value of making mistakes
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The value of making mistakes
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
27 August 2015

The value of making mistakes

If we take more risks, we will make more mistakes. And we will learn and grow.

Written by Liz Evans

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

This post is sponsored by Pozible

What does this mean?

When British writer Neil Gaiman gave his speech to the graduating class of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012, he delivered some timeless wisdom on the crucial links between making mistakes and creativity:

“If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.”

Gaiman celebrates mistakes because he sees them as belonging to the dynamic process of creativity. As a writer, he knows that we need to make mistakes in order to move and grow, and that when we are afraid of making them, we can run into creative blocks. Our fear of getting it wrong can paralyse us, make us lose our joy and inspiration and lead us into inertia.

So how do we steer away from these ever-decreasing circles? I interviewed Neil Gaiman 25 or so years ago, when DC Comics published his mini series, The Books of Magic. He told me restrictions were self-imposed, and what you did with them was what mattered. For some of us this might be quite a complex process, but essentially Gaiman was right. Perhaps the most effective way to deal with a block or restriction is not to go round the fear, but to go through it. And shifting our perspective on mistakes can help.

Whether we feel blocked within a project, a relationship or our work, we need to learn to open up to the creativity inherent in our mistakes. This will help us feel more accepting of ourselves and find the courage to keep going. As the renowned founding father of analytical psychology, CG Jung, said:

“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”

Mistakes are vital for growth, and that includes our own human development. Neurobiological research now verifies the 20th Century findings of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby who showed that babies thrive when they experience positive attunement from their caregivers, and do better emotionally, developmentally and cognitively than those who aren’t so well met. This may sound like parents can’t afford to make mistakes, but in fact the secret of positive attunement lies in the caregivers’ handling of misattunements.

So what does a positive attunement look like? When you see a mother holding her baby, making soothing sounds and engaging with her child’s facial expressions in a way that gently mirrors and supports the child’s experience, you are witnessing positive attunement. Now, let’s say the phone rings and the mother sets the baby down to answer the call. The baby quickly experiences a misattunement and begins to cry. If the mother ignores the cries, eventually the baby will be overwhelmed by negative feelings like fear and sadness, becoming hyper-aroused. Stress hormones are released into the baby’s brain, and if this happens too often, and for too long, the baby is exposed to all kinds of potential, possibly long-term, conditions, both physical and psychological. But if the mother cuts her call short, and re-attunes to her baby before the cries become screams, the baby will settle. In time, the baby begins to realise that it can withstand more and longer periods of separation because it is able to trust that mother will return and re-attune, and that all is right with the world.

Many misattunements occur unintentionally—a mismatch in emotional tone, a too-loud voice, a too-tight hug—but all can be resolved by a responsive, empathic, loving caregiver. So a misattunement, as long as it is resolved, is a type of mistake that offers ideal opportunities for interactive repair between parent and child, and this is where we, as children, learn to self-regulate. If we can self-regulate effectively, we can withstand much more from others and the world as we move through our lives. This reparative work is also one of the fundamental aspects of good psychotherapy, which can help us if we haven’t internalised enough loving responsiveness in early life.

When we look at our mistakes as creative openings, as opportunities for learning, even as portals to healing and transformation, we can feel much bolder about making them in the first place. With this focus in mind, we can stare into the eye of inertia and take a step towards it. Mistakes are essentially the way through creative blocks, in any area of our lives. It can feel risky to dance with the possibility of mistakes, but risks are also pathways into growth. As we witness the impact of sedentary screen-based activities and increasing health and safety legislation on our society, we are now appreciating the need for risk in many ways, both physical and mental.

If we take more risks we will make more mistakes, and we will learn, grow and be able to keep our internalised sense of repair and resolution finely-tuned for ourselves as well as others. We will move creatively through our lives, weaving better relationships as we go.

Let’s give the last word back to Neil Gaiman:

“Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

Liz Evans

Liz Evans is a Jungian psychotherapist and writer based in Hobart.

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