“We don’t make mistakes, just have happy little accidents”.
Bob Ross, the internet loved artist and almost spiritual guru, is a person many will know by image if not by name. But this simple and innocent statement from one of his many paint-along videos is the essence of an important message.
As a society the concept of mistakes are drilled in to us from an early age. When you were a child I'm sure you remember a certain freedom to explore, however the older you got the more emphasis there was on process and the more you were generally taught a correct way of doing things and an incorrect way. This is something Sir Ken Robinson talks about in one of his Ted Talks.
The education system for example is typically seen as a conveyor belt of rewarding consistency and ensuring we can tick the same specific boxes which the examiners are looking for, to quantitatively prove achievement. It's not necessarily learning how to understand the right things, it's learning how to say or repeat the right things. And while this might improve averages according to the tests, it prevents a healthy questioning of what if or why through a fear of not obtaining that grade; a grade which we are often told by society our life's success will depend on. And that in itself poses an overall threat of creating a generational mentality towards “playing it safe”, afraid to deviate and make mistakes.
Having such a mentality then affects process, routine and how you generally approach problems. The creative process alone is by its very nature not formulaic — it’s spontaneous, organic and exciting. So this ‘playing it safe’ frame of mind can restrict your process and prevent you from pushing your idea or execution that little bit further to go from simply ok to excellent, all because it takes you beyond your level of confidence. A routine based on this mindset even deters you from questioning and experimenting with new ways of thinking and methods of action from the outset which could easily be more fitting or fulfilling, due to the fact it’s not what you’re used to and doesn’t fit your existing process. From this it unfortunately flaunts cookie cutter results and ultimately a feeling of incompleteness that you are never quite achieving or succeeding.
For example I got a First with Honours at university, and looking back a large part of me wishes I hadn’t. Yes I worked extremely hard for that grade, and the pride of a First from myself and those around me was about as nice as you'd want, all coming with a sense of validation which unfortunately ends about there. In hindsight I wish I had ignored the pressure of achieving a good mark and experimented in my projects for the sake of genuine improvement. Because my most successful, lasting and fulfilling work has always been when approaching situations differently to any expectations, taking myself out of my comfort zone, building on unexpected outcomes rather than fighting them, and importantly having thrown any ‘default’ process to the wayside.
The topic of mistakes isn't a wholly educational issue either. With both the looming, culturally instilled emphasises on grades as well as social media's omnipresent obsession to show yourself in a successful light, mistakes are often associated with failure as opposed to the learning opportunities they are, and taught as things to be afraid of and do everything to avoid.
Therefore it seems mistakes are ultimately tied to perception, confidence and comfort zones; the further out of that zone, the more of a mistake something will seem and the less we might view it as a chance to improve ourselves. Meanwhile the only way to improve is to push our comfort zones and force ourselves to adapt. We have to be confident and positive enough to accept the possibility of ‘mistakes’ and try something new.
So to address this stigma and take advice from Bob Ross, we should probably each consider what we do honestly and thoroughly:
1) Don't chase the number thinking that it will automatically, somehow, make you better. Because it won't. If anything it will make you worse.
2) If you're worried about failure then that's normal and fair, however you shouldn't let it hinder you from experimenting and growing as a person. Your confidence and comfort zones are there to be played with.
3) Process helps guide us and gives everyone a yardstick to aim for, although don’t allow yourself to be dictated by it. The task at hand should influence your approach, and if your process doesn't enable that then take yourself off the beaten path.
4) Be positive. Being willing to accept mistakes is the chance to challenge your perceptions and explore other ways of thinking. Don't see unexpected results as failure, because what might seem a mistake could easily be a happy little accident.
5) And finally, encourage others. Try to remove the negative stigma of mistakes for your friends in way of helping them develop their own confidence, knowledge and process so as they too can feel like they are achieving something new, fulfilling and exciting.