The Value of Mistakes

August 13, 2015


 Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes:  from miswriting your name when you are completing an application to hiding assets when you're filing a bankruptcy.  Making a mistake is a sign that you're human and that you're in the opportune position to learn a lesson that life is ready to teach you.


Unfortunately, many don't take this view when it comes to learning a foreign language or writing any type of document.  And this misapprehension of the purpose of mistakes is what stunts people or causes them to spend more time than necessary growing in whatever it is they're learning.  Let's first talk about the value of mistakes when it comes to learning French.




Make no mistake (pun intended) about it:  French can be a challenging language to learn.  From interesting pronunciation, to what English speakers see as gratuitous and superfluous use of definite articles, we have all scratched our head at it.


For the simple fact that language is different from you own, you are bound--and expected--to make errors.  Where many language learners get discouraged is thinking that the mistake is evidence that they're complete failures at the language.  When you mistakenly use "apporter" when you should use "amener," that must be indicative that you know nothing of French.  Of course not.  Both of these verbs mean "bring," just in different senses.  We don't have such distinctions in English.  Knowing that, you're bound to make the mistake, and will continue to make it until you become comfortable with the distinction.


In a prior post, we talked about the imperfect tense.  It's a certain way to speak about past events, but it can be translated identically in English, although they are treated differently French.


As long as you take the time to identify when you make a mistake and then try to learn from it, you'll see that it's a sign that you're living and breathing.  The moment you declare yourself mistake-free for all eternity is the moment you can be guaranteed to not be among the living any longer.




Grammar mavens should take note of this:  Mistakes happen all the time; they are not indicative of someone who is inept in writing.  They are, however, indicative of someone who is as flawed as everyone else, incluidng the aloof mavens.


Writing is the area where you really want to take time to understand your mistakes and learn how to resolve them.  The reason is that writing stays forever.  And I am not talking about misuse of elliptical clauses; I'm talking about subject-verb agreements or double negatives.  These look bad, especially in documents that need to be well put-together for the audience, such as a business proposals or theses.


One of the ways to ferret out mistakes is through pre-writing, which we discussed in a prior posting.  Pre-writing is where you allow yourself the freedom to err as much as you like, because this is also the time that you can learn from the errors.  If your subjects and verbs don't agree, the revision process will identify that, and you can correct it before it makes it to the final draft.


By the way, this is why they made white-out and the backspace/delete key.


The Fallacy of Perfectionism


If you're a perfectionist, mistakes are antithetical to your very existence, and this makes for an overly complicated, needlessly difficult life.  There certainly is such a thing called excellence, but there is no such thing as perfection.  When you operate with a perfectionist mind, you may be great at identifying your problems, but you spend too much time in the identification phase--because as you find one mistake, you find another--and another, and another, and another.  It's an endless cycle of progress paralysis.


The perfectionist is someone who proclaims fluency in French, but who comes across a word she doesn't recognize when she's having a discussion with a native speaker, which causes her to question the integrity of her French-language education--over one word.  A perfectionist is someone who looks at a school research paper and finds that he double-spaced after a comma rather than single-spaced, and rewrites the entire paper or a large swath of it--because of a spacing error.  And when he finds another mistake, the overhaul begins anew.  This is silly and at variance with progress.


This distinct from expecting excellence of yourself.  If you expect yourself to do well, you're tolerant of mistakes, and you're even keen on identifying them.  But you then spend the rest of your time learning about the mistake and learning how to avoid them in the future.  And you practice to learn to avoid them.  And then you move on.  That's they key difference:  one stays in a cycle of identifying mistakes while the other identifies and moves on.  The person demanding excellence will always produce better outcomes than the perfectionists.


So keep this posting in mind when you're conjugating your next -er verb in French or are writing your business proposal.  Focus on excellence rather than perfectionism.  You'll never go wrong, because you'll always recognize that you're a human.

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