How I Learned to Love Mistakes

Photo: Dima Pavlenko via Pexels

Everyone makes mistakes. How many times have we heard that? A lot. That’s probably because it’s true. Still, some people make more than others. And then there are those other people. You know who I’m talking about. The ones who never seem to make mistakes. Some people seem so perfect.

They’re not. Sorry.

Still, let’s not hate on the perfect people; rather, we can learn from them by emulating their strengths, of course, but also by emulating their mistakes, or how they handle them with skill and creativity.

Drum-roll, please

I should point out that I’m a drummer. I do other things, for instance, right now I’m writing some words (Imagine that: a drummer who writes.), but being a drummer is a huge part of my identity. In a way, drummers have it easy. We’re usually in the back just doing our thing. There’s a certain safety in that. Most people don’t pay much attention to the drummer unless they’re playing a solo, or as we call it in the business: showing off.

However, there is a moment every drummer knows: when a stick catches on the rim of a drum on its way up. This causes the stick to pop out of the grip of the drummer, seeing as a proper technique often requires a rather loose grip. (A physicist could probably explain this better than I can, but you get the point.) At that moment, the drummer sees the stick suspended in mid-air. Sometimes it’s spinning. Other times it seems to be hurtling through space, surely on a collision course with a fellow band-mate or worse: an audience member.

All of this happens in the space of a split-second which, to the drummer, seems like an eternity. If you’re inexperienced, it’s pretty awful. We’ve all been there. Thoughts race: “I’m such a klutz. I must look like an idiot.” or “I hope nobody gets hurt. Could I be sued?” but the worst is, “I think I can catch it.”

Pause right there

Wait. Let me back up for a second and say that every drummer drops a stick once in a while. I used to live in New York and I’ve seen a lot of concerts. I’ve seen some of the greatest drummers in the world drop sticks. I’ve seen my heroes drop sticks, but no one I was with noticed. They still seemed perfect to my non-drummer friends.

And continue

So, back to the moment when the stick is suspended in mid-oops. Our natural inclination is to want to fix a mistake. That’s where the “I think I can catch it” idea comes in. But at that moment as I watch the stick and contemplate my fate, what I am not thinking about at all is — the music! All focus is momentarily lost and so the best case scenario at that point is that I sound awful for a split second while I think “Maybe it will look like I did it on purpose” not realizing, by that point, everyone is looking at me and no, it does not look cool. And then if I don’t catch the stick the whole situation gets much, much worse.

When a great drummer drops a stick 99.9% of the people there don’t even realize it. The drummer has a new stick in their hand before the old one hits the ground. They can’t even remember that it happened after the show.

Once I realized this, I started practicing dropping sticks on purpose, which is harder than it sounds. Eventually, I got better at it and it made me a better player because I wasn’t dreading that awful moment anymore. I was much more relaxed and in the flow and therefore made fewer mistakes.

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” — Johnny Cash

We all make mistakes but it’s what we do with the mistake that makes all the difference in the world. The fear of making a mistake is often worse than the mistake itself. To be completely above board here, I still fall for the I-can-catch-it fallacy occasionally, but I’m much better at recovering now. Nobody’s perfect, but I’m working on it.

Is the universe trying to tell you something?

Are you listening? Are you in the flow? If so, sometimes a mistake can be interpreted as a cue from the universe to change course. And no, I don’t mean the universe is trying to tell you to quit. Sometimes the best thing to do is something different. Instead of reflexively reaching for a new stick, sometimes I’ll pick up the brushes instead or just play with my hands. We can learn to deal with mistakes gracefully and maybe even enjoy them.

Sometimes fixing the mistake is a mistake. I remember when my daughter was 5 or 6 and trying to draw and she got really upset about making an errant line, totally ruining her bunny or whatever she was working on. I had a long talk with her about using the mistake to make the picture different, not better or worse, but just different.

Of course, I had to remind her about our conversation a bunch of times, but eventually it stuck and I think it really had an impact on how she looks at being an artist. She would come up to me and show me pictures and point out where she had messed up and then changed the picture to make sense of the mistake. She became proud of her mistakes and now she’s in school for graphic design.

Photo: Yuri Malishenko via Unsplash

And look, if you’re a surgeon or a pilot, maybe don’t be so proud of your mistakes. Some mistakes you can’t come back from. This doesn’t apply to everything and everyone, but some amazing discoveries have been made by mistake. The Slinky, for instance, one of my favorite toys; a naval engineer dropped some springs on the floor and made a mess, but instead of being irritated, he saw the potential in what happened.

Conclusion

If we can hone our ability to recognize our mistakes, assess the best way forward, and fully commit to either grabbing a new stick or going in a new direction, mistakes won’t entirely derail us. Instead, they can widen our view and potentially spark inspiration for different, if not better, ideas.

“If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.” — Coleman Hawkins

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