If you’re male, the “right way” to engage in the process of learning is a Gordian knot: “Learn how to do things correctly, but don’t make mistakes.” It’s an expectation that surrounds boys from birth.
But mistake-less learning is a contradiction in terms, a set up for failure. As anyone who’s ever learned virtually anything knows, it’s not possible to learn without making mistakes. Often, the more comfortable we get with inevitable errors as we learn, the fewer we make, and the quicker and more effectively we assimilate new information.
In fact, learning could be defined as a series of adjustments (or “mistakes”) that get translated into useful feedback and alchemized into progress through our persistence. The valuable feedback we gain from mistakes allows us to adapt future actions. It’s what leads to success.
In many ways, mistakes aren’t just part of the learning process: they are the learning process.
So you can see the bind we put our boys and men in, culturally. They aren’t encouraged to welcome and learn from mistakes. Instead, they’re bound by the catch-twenty-two of mistake-less learning. As a result, learning in and of itself becomes shameful. The tumultuous micro-moments of failure and ostracism accumulate: a relative exhales with disappointment, a big-brother says, “What are you, stupid?,” a goal isn’t blocked and dad’s smile vanishes, a stunt ends in tears, the boy without any experience is strong-armed into playing the least-desirable role. Mistakeless-learning is the entryway to the Old Boy’s Club of traditional masculinity.
Learning is the pivot-point where something that’s not quite working meets creative possibilities. Unfortunately, boys learn to think of absolute competence as the Golden Willy Wonka ticket to the chocolate factory of success. Do a thing you’re just beginning to do as if you’ve already done it a hundred times. Know where you’re going before you’ve gone there. Be certain when you don’t know. Succeed at small and big tasks, always. Suffer your errors secretly and silently. Present an all-knowing facade. To “not know” is weakness, and weakness is dangerous.
These messages create confusion in relationships. They lead to misunderstanding and disconnection. Same or other-gendered partners misinterpret their mates’ dread of incompetence as a personal rejection, and then react from that painful perception in ways that further shame or blame their partners.
To be truly intimate, men who’ve grown up in a mistakeless-learning culture can develop the courage to get comfortable making mistakes. They can cultivate a true, deep, shameless willingness to learn. Gradually, they can experience mistakes as essential rather than shameful.
Be on the look-out for your own mistakeless-learning stories. I need to be competent. I should already know this. Mistakes mean you’re willing, open, learning, and growing. Relationally-successful men tap into the superpower of their own willingness to learn. Create a new story. Gloriously f*ck up. Say goodbye to the pretense of mistakeless learning.
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