The title of this article is advice someone gave me long ago. That advise was actually directed to an acting class and I was in that class I think for around 5 or 6 years. I will never forget my teacher or his advice. His name was Chris Berube and for many years, he ran a little improvisation workshop in Santa Ana, California. Once a week, I attended that class and learned from my mistakes.
That advice, not to worry about my mistakes, was golden for me. I had taken improvisation classes before in junior high school, so I wasn’t really worried about making mistakes on stage. Even my own father told me, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not getting anything done.” I had already grounded myself in preparation for making mistakes, and I was ready to make a few more mistakes on stage.
What I liked about the way Berube framed his advice is that it had an immediate and profound application to the people around me. While my father was worried about productivity in his advice, Berube was addressing the social concerns of how people feel when they make mistakes or worry about the same. Berube’s advice gave an easily understood personal perspective on mistakes.
So I keep this in mind when it comes to performance anxiety, and here, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about life. I allow myself room for error when presented with any task. I don’t worry about what other people might think of my mistakes because I know that they’ve already made mistakes, and they may still be thinking of those mistakes. If my observers have experience and compassion, they will quietly note my mistake, and maybe, they will give me guidance to avoid that mistake or how to fix it.
For a period of my life lasting a few years, I played pool almost every night. I had a friend who played straight pool, and I learned a very interesting game with him. My best run of balls was 16 balls. The world record, which still holds today, is 526 balls by Willie Mosconi. And he didn’t quit because he missed. He quit because he got tired. But I know that for every mistake I’ve made in shooting pool, he’s already made them two or three times, maybe more, to become as great as he was.
I know that if I want to excel at something, I have to make mistakes to get there. I have to try everything to see what works and what doesn’t work. Trial and error, they say, right? In order to make those mistakes, I have to set aside what anyone else might think of me. I hold that attitude in work, in my relationships and in life. If I want to excel at something, I have no time to worry about what other people think.
More importantly, I have no control over what other people think of me. Firstly, I don’t know what they’re thinking of me, and really, I have no need to know what they’re thinking of me. There was something else that Berube told us in that class. Don’t worry about your mistakes because everyone else on stage is so self conscious, they’re not thinking of you. They’re thinking of them. They’re probably more worried about what you think of their mistakes than what they think of yours.
As you can see, Berube has given a lot of thought to the problem of mistakes. He has inspired me, too. And over the years, I have had to learn something else about mistakes. I must forgive myself for my mistakes. You may have noticed that in the past few days, I’ve talked at length about forgiveness. Mostly, forgiveness of other people. But for most of us, the one person we forget to forgive is ourselves.
Forgiving ourselves for our mistakes is important. I am the most important person to forgive, for there may be no one else to forgive me for my mistakes. So I might as well start here, with me.
And how is it that I can forgive others but not forgive myself? I’ve made some big honking mistakes, but I live to tell their tales. I have survived all of my mistakes up to this point, so I am still worthy of the endeavor of living. Life is forgiving. Life learns from our mistakes and evolves to adapt to conditions that give rise to those mistakes. Natural selection works that way.
I don’t fear writing because I practice every day. I’ve already made many mistakes in writing and continue to learn each time I click on the Publish button. I don’t fear speaking in public because I allow myself the opportunity to make mistakes. Yes, I did use the word “opportunity” with the word “mistake” in the same sentence. Just as every no is one step closer to a yes, every mistake is one step closer to success.
Look at the most successful people around you, and in media. They didn’t become successful without making some really big mistakes. They succeeded because they transcended all of their mistakes, learning from each mistake to find something that works for them.
There is one other aspect to this business of mistakes: criticism. I don’t criticize myself or others, Criticism is poison for humans. Criticism doesn’t teach any skills because it’s punishment, not encouragement. So I don’t criticize the mistakes I make or the mistakes of other people. I tried that when I was a young man and that just didn’t work for me. Criticism makes me tired.
So I don’t criticize myself. And I don’t criticize others because I know that for many of the people I love, they are their own worst critic. And how can they ever make any progress if they don’t make mistakes?
Without criticism in my life, I have given myself permission to make mistakes. And without criticism, I’m better able to learn from my mistakes rather than flailing myself with punishment for each error. For to err is human.