Monday, January 4, 2010

Resolving to Make Mistakes

Whenever I teach a class, regardless of the technical level, I usually start out with the same set of rules I've used for years. The rules are simple and I've found that as I go on they seem to apply outside the classroom as well. They go like this:

  1. Make mistakes.
  2. Ask (stupid) questions.
  3. Talk back.
  4. Memorize nothing.
  5. If anything goes wrong in this room, you can blame me.

I like these rules so much I thought I'd use them as my resolutions.

1. I resolve to make more mistakes.

Life isn't about how often we succeed but rather how fast we fail. Failing means we're growing. If you try something once and succeed on the very first try, what have you learned? Not much, just how to do that thing correctly one way.

If you try something and fail 999 times only to succeed at last, what have you learned? Perhaps 999 ways NOT to do something and one way to do something greater.

One of my favorite terms in music is the accidental. It's name implies how it might have happened for the composer or musician. It began as a humble mistake and blossomed into a thing of beauty, an embellishment to make the music sound alive.

Failures are the greatest mark that we are alive. They mark that we are changing, that we are growing.

If you don't think you're succeeding enough in your life perhaps you should try failing faster and more often. It's only when we stop being afraid to fail that we can succeed.

2. I resolve to ask many, many (stupid) questions.

There's a reason I put stupid in parentheses. There's the old cliche that "There are no stupid questions," but I like the one that goes, "The only stupid question is the one you didn't ask." There's more to this than just asking ridiculous questions. We should be unafraid to ask. Period. Maybe this rule should be rephrased to say "Always ask more questions." If we don't ask, we'll never know. This holds true in work, in friendships, in love. When we're with our loved ones, if you don't ask, you don't have a relationship.

3. I resolve to talk back as often as I can.

This resolution and the second are related. We must never be afraid to speak our mind. Honestly, openly, and compassionately. I usually joke with my classes that this doesn't mean "with attitude." I use it to illustrate that I'm not psychic. I can't tell whether to move the class faster or slower, to speak up or down, to break, or to continue unless I get feedback from the class. Sometimes body language just isn't enough. It that student's head nodding because they understand or because they're falling asleep? Unfortunately, students will fib. Students often say they understand when they don't or that we can move on when we really shouldn't.

Friends and family fib as well. They tell you nothing's bothering them or act as if they don't need your love or help. I do the same when I shouldn't. How will your friends and family know what's on your mind and in your heart if you don't tell them?

Now it's true that actions can speak louder than words, but sometimes words are all you need.

4. I resolve to memorize nothing.

In software, things change. Just as you think you've got one version figured out the next geek comes along and makes sweeping changes to the program. Life works the same way. I guess you could phrase this better as "I'll take nothing for granted."

In math once you've established that a + b = c, then a + b should always equal c from then on. In life it doesn't always work that way. Just when you think you've got a friend, a loved one, or a lover figured out, you don't. That's the great adventure of it all. So enjoy it.

Don't fall into a rut and "memorize" your loved one. Don't take anything they do for granted. Let them surprise you with the wonder that they are everyday and appreciate every little moment you have.

5. I resolve to take the blame.

In my classroom I take responsibility for the entire experience. If a computer breaks, I'll do my best to fix it and keep going. If a student doesn't understand or gets lost, I've got to bring them back to our journey.

In life, if I'm unhappy, in other words, if I'm suffering, it's my fault. I am responsible for my own happiness. The same is true for any adult you meet.

You can't do anything about pain. I am sorry but your life unfortunately will have pain. You can, however, do something about suffering. Pain just is. Suffering doesn't have to be. You control that. You can accept the pain and move on or you can wallow in the suffering. The choice is always yours.

Measuring Success

Now any good self help guru will tell you that you have to have a goal or resolution that is measurable. I have a scale for my resolutions. It's the only metric that really matters. I'll count the number of smiles I give and receive. If they keep increasing then I'll know my resolutions are working.

I hope your New Year brings you the happiness you deserve and that you succeed with your resolutions. (Of course, maybe only after a brilliant, fortunate failure or two first!)

What are your plans for the new year and how will you make them happen? Let me hear from you in the comments.



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