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Make Glorious Mistakes!


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by Daniel Dennett

Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.” Neil Gaiman

Brain Pickings, one of our favorite sites for inspiring thought and introspection,  shared a look at philosopher Daniel Dennett, on the recent anniversary of his 72 birthday.  Dennet is often considered one of our greatest living philosophers.   What? You didn’t know there were still philosophers?  Allow us to introduce you to Mr. Dennett.

Daniel Clement “Dan” Dennett III is an American philosopher, writer and scientist with a particular interest in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.  He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Among other things, he has been referred to as  one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism“, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens- a sort of evangelical atheist, a phrase he’d probably disdain.

More to our interests, though, he’s a huge proponent of failure.

“Mistakes are not just golden opportunities for learning, Dennett wrote in his essay, How to Make Mistakes, “They are, in an Oopsimportant sense, the only opportunity for learning something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. These learners must either have evolved themselves or have been designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error–and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything. ”

Recently, on the journey to creating something we believe is amazing and good and important, we made some big, truly glorious mistakes.  They were errors of judgement, mostly, affecting process and to some degree, perhaps the outcome of initial effort.

Dennett says, “The fundamental reaction to any mistake ought to be this: “Well, I won’t do that again!” ”

That was, in fact, our reaction.  And that reaction, says Dennett, is the start of the reflection that is at the heart of the value of making mistakes.

“…when we reflect, we confront directly the problem that must be solved by any mistake-maker: what, exactly, is that? What was it about what I just did that got me into all this trouble? The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it, and not be just another blind stab in the dark. ”

There’s a movement afoot in schools to de-stigmatize the action of making mistakes.

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien

Mistakes, said authors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien in a recent Edutopia article (Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes), are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus …deliberate practice,” the exercise of “isolating what’s not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.”

That’s one of the reasons FIRST robotics is such an effective educational program; mistakes – big glorious messy mechanical mistakes, emotional teamwork mistakes, complicated programming mistakes – are common and, thanks to the culture of FIRST, expected, embraced, documented and built upon.

When we first realized our mistake(s), we were disappointed, sad, frustrated and mad at our ourselves.  Once we could put aside some of the emotion of the experience, we were able to take at serious look at what happened and earnestly evaluate how we wanted to move forward.   And we became excited anew about the fresh possibilities presented as a result of the new knowledge gained from our big mistake, and even somewhat grateful for the experience. (Maybe we’ll be more grateful when a little more time has gone by!)

The folks at GoogleX have a “fail fast, fail often” philosophy.

“If we can get to a no quickly on an idea, that’s almost as good as getting to a yes,” says Rich DeVaul, head of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team.  (How GoogleX Employees Deal with Failure)

If, as Dennett asserts, anyone who can say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” is standing on the threshold of brilliance, then we’re near geniuses!  But a critical part of making the best of mistakes, Dennett points out, is to not hide from our mistakes, nor to hide our mistakes.   Dennett says we should savor our mistakes, suck out ” all the goodness to be gained from having made them, (and then) cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity.”

It is that indomitable spirit that builds character and resilience, and makes good ideas become workable realities.

Back to the drawing board!

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