Do you remember when you were a child and you were coloring trying hard to stay within the lines? Do you remember the frustration you experienced when the strokes went off the edges of the drawing?
From very early on we come face to face with the error and experience the unpleasant feelings that it triggers. Later, when we start going to school, the mistakes take on a larger proportion. Our notebooks are filled with red lines that indicate that we have made a mistake. They tell us that our response is not what we expected and we must change it.
Thus we develop a negative attitude towards error, to the point of wanting to banish it from our lives. We forget that in order to learn to walk, we had to fall many times. That before learning to eat correctly, we spill food infinite times. We focus only on the stumbles and falls, forgetting that those mistakes have been necessary for our evolution. Through these experiences we are obsessed with the idea that error is bad, something that we must avoid at all costs.
Instead, we really just have to learn to be wrong, stop punishing ourselves for past mistakes, and even open the door to the possibility of failure.
The error as a source of surprise and discoveries
In 1968, Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist in Maplewood, was working on creating a super-strong adhesive for the aerospace industry. However, what he created was a new material that was so light that it peeled off easily without leaving residue on the surface.
What was initially a mistake, five years later became the glue that the company would use to create what was then called Press n’ Peel but later we would all know as post it, a ubiquitous element in offices around the world.
Actually, many famous inventions are due to “mistakes”. And it is that surprise, both in the good and in the bad sense, is inherent to error. In the end, an error is just a deviation from the expected results, either because it goes against our expectations or those of society.
From that perspective, error bothers us because it introduces an unexpected factor into the equation and opens the door to uncertainty. It reminds us that we have deviated from the marked path and, therefore, we have not reached the “right” point.
In fact, it is not by chance that the word error comes from the Latin “errare”, which also means to wander and go around aimlessly. It is also linked to the root “ers”, which implies to be in motion. Therefore, its own etymology allows us to glimpse that error is an inherent part of evolution. Mistakes are part of the journey. Avoiding them condemns us to immobility. Only those who do nothing can make no mistakes, those who do not try, who do not take risks, the persons who does not dare to go further and challenge their limits. For that reason, it is necessary to learn to be wrong and even open a space for error in our lives.
The error as a driving force of learning
Our brain constantly makes predictions about the probability of something happening in order to anticipate problems. Obviously, it will try to minimize uncertainty and surprise, to avoid a more demanding situation that forces us to face the unexpected.
Much of that process occurs below the level of consciousness, neuroscientists at Northwestern University have revealed. However, that process gives us security. On the other hand, when an unforeseen event occurs and we are wrong, our brain is forced to recalculate the difference between reality and its prediction to estimate the margin of error.
Since it implies a greater cognitive effort, and sometimes also an emotional burden due to the negative halo with which the error has been covered, our first impulse is to get rid of that experience. However, it is precisely in that margin of error where learning occurs. In that margin we update our predictions, take note of reality and change our plans to be more effective or better adapted.
Mistakes prime the brain to learn in unique and powerful ways. Therefore, when we make a mistake, instead of trying to turn the page quickly, we must understand that we are obtaining valuable information to update our vision of the world, recalibrate our beliefs or change our behaviors.
The ability to see mistakes as learning opportunities is key to developing a growth mindset. The persons with a growth mindset will see themselves as a “work in progress,” meaning that mistakes do not pose a threat to their identity. At that very moment, they stop becoming the enemy and become allies.
Of course, learning to be wrong requires hard work. We have to analyze what went wrong and find out how to correct it. And to do so, we must practice self-acceptance by understanding the mistake as an event, not a permanent identity. If we are wrong about something, it does not mean that we become “failures”.
Interestingly, when we open the door to error, the chances of making mistakes decrease because by making room for entropy we open ourselves to all possibilities, which broadens the horizon of results.
Of course, it’s not about going through life making mistakes on purpose, but about leaving room for the unexpected to happen and opening the door to the uncertain. Dare more, even if it means making mistakes. It is, in short, about expanding the edges of the drawing and making peace with ourselves when, by mistake, our lines go out of the margins. Because a mistake can be tragic, but it can also be magical.
Vilares, I. et. Al. (2012) Differential Representations of Prior and Likelihood Uncertainty in the Human Brain. Current Biology; 22(18): 1641-1648.
Green, P. (2007) Post-it: The All-purpose Note That Stuck. In: The New York Times.