What is a mistake?

Advice almost never works. The theory is that the advice giver knows what she would do in a given situation, knowing what she knows and based on the circumstances of her life, but we can’t ever fully know another person and what would be the right thing for him or her to do.

In coaching, we trust that the client is creative and resourceful, and if we ask the right open-ended (non-leading!) questions, the client will eventually come to her own answers that are right for her life.

Yet I’m reading a book of collected bits of advice whose editor claims to have always been suspicious of receiving advice. I like taking advice with a grain of salt, like aphorisms. Having a repertoire of blanket statements based on lessons people older and wiser than me have gathered over the course of their lives gives me material to fall back on when I’m not sure I have a good solution.

In one story, a writer tells of his younger years working construction in the summers and how a wall he framed one time was off. The master carpenter told him “it’s off, but it ain’t so off we couldn’t stand her up and nail it. But the little that’s wrong with it will just keep right on, growing through the house, unless someone takes care of it or unless it grows so big ain’t no one can fix it.”

As the carpenter fixes the frame, he continues: “No one would know…because the house still going to look like a house when we all through….When it comes to making mistakes, a bad carpenter and a good carpenter is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.”

Years later, this writer was a visitor to the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and found himself on top of some scaffolding, close enough to the ceiling to touch it. That close, he could see Michelangelo’s mistakes–the lines painted over that signified “errors and lapses and rethinkings.”

He realized in that moment how true the carpenter’s words had been, and he writes, “from the floor of the Sistine Chapel, man is divine, but up on the scaffolding, all is the glorious, earnest mess you should expect it to be.”

Excepting criminal acts (“another realm that can’t be addressed by the euphemism ‘mistake'”), this writer believes mistakes are a byproduct of the pursuit of excellence. But that’s only true if the following is also true:

“Aren’t these fallacies: Everybody makes mistakes and People learn from their mistakes? Isn’t it more true that very few people make mistakes, if we define mistakes as that which must be corrected? And where is the conclusive body of evidence that people learn from their mistakes? In fact, I don’t even think learning from mistakes is the right focus to begin with, since it infers there is such a thing as a path to infallibility, which is both a simple-minded and dangerous notion.”

A simple truth: we all make mistakes, but it’s only in the act of correcting them that we admit they were mistakes in the first place, but in doing so, we become better.

Also, infallibility is an impossibility for human beings. Sorry, fellow perfectionists.

The writer concludes “it’s the only way to have a soul, isn’t it, this patching up, this painting over, this trimming out…?”

I think so. My whole life has been an experiment in patching and painting and trimming the various missteps of my thoughts or actions. But we have to admit missteps in the first  place.

And when I have not admitted that something was a mistake, when I simply moved on from it, didn’t I still look like a house, and meanwhile the mistake kept growing until it reached a breaking point and either had to be fixed or became unfixable?

So, an easy piece of wisdom that we may not see the value of until it applies: See clearly our mistakes, face them, right them, edge a little closer to good.


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