With apologies to self-help gurus and management consultants everywhere, not all mistakes are learning opportunities.
Some mistakes just hurt. They hurt when you make them and they continue to hurt or to cause damage. Sometimes you simply make a mistake that has consequences that keep on showing up. Often in different ways and on different occasions. Usually when the last thing you want or need is for that particular mistake to be brought to the attention of the people you work for or the people you love.
If that’s a learning opportunity, the only real learning is how to feel regret, shame, and to get a grip on reciting “I wish I hadn’t done that”.
So, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, it goes.
On the other hand, if you are a writer, it’s possible to transmute those mistakes into something useful. Writers – and painters, and composers – work with their experiences to forge material, after all. (And I think it was Oscar Wilde who said “experience is the name we give to our mistakes”.) Cartoonists, too.
I mention cartoonists especially because it was a picture from Hugh MacLeod – one of his daily emails from gapingvoid.com – that set me off on this particular train of thought. The picture is not one of his best but in the accompanying text he talks of mistakes – ranging from failed relationships to addictions – and ends with the thought that:
I’m as guilty as anyone; I’ve made silly, random mistakes in spades. Luckily, I can draw a cartoon about it later…
There seems to me to be two dangers inherent in the belief that mistakes can be later used as ‘art’, for want of a better word:
- Justification and special pleading (after the mistake) – it’s easy to take a stance of ‘I can do what I like because I’m an artist’. This is the sort of thing I used to love reading in the biographies of the big drinking writers of the past. As I grew up, and as I saw it enacted in the behaviour of some of my friends, it became less attractive. And I’m ashamed to admit that I have been guilty of this.
- Carelessness (before the mistake) – if I sense that I can ‘make something’ out of any experience I inhabit, however painful to myself or others, then I might just be a little less rigorous in following my inner moral compass and so increase my risk taking. And when in you’re in the risk taking zone, it’s easy to think that if harm occurs, it will affect only you. It rarely does.
You can see that I’m leaning towards using the term mistake to cover a multitude of sins. And, regardless of your moral philosophy – or even faith – sins is what many mistakes turn out to be when other are harmed. At the same time, I’m trying not to come across as some sort of moral watchdog. What constitutes mistakes (or even sins) is very much for your own conscience to decide – and it is your sense of unease (dare I call it guilt?) which will most often tell you when you have transgressed against your own moral code.
The whole question of whether art derives from moral, immoral, or amoral places (or all three) is a discussion for another day.
And apologies to Hugh MacLeod for turning his possibly lighthearted line into the basis for a darker thought.
You can subscribe to Hugh’s daily cartoons (and accompanying thoughts on life and business) at the gapingvoid website.