Always Make Old Mistakes

My mentor Esther Dyson signs off her e-mails with the phrase, “Always make new mistakes.” It’s particularly appropriate if you know Esther, but insightful even if you don’t.

Mistakes are opportunities for learning.  Making new mistakes means you haven’t stood still.  You’ve overcome the old mistakes and found new ways to crash and burn.  The spirit of making new mistakes what typifies successful entrepreneurs and successful game players.  It’s a willingness to take risks and experiment, without the paralyzing fear of failure.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about learning and teaching. I’m a professor, so teaching is an important part of what I do. I think I’m pretty good at it.  Like most professors, though, even though I enjoy teaching and care about doing it well, I’ve never had any training.  I’ve never really learned how to teach.  After receiving tenure, I made it a personal goal to educate myself.  I’m going back to school.  Only, this is a school with no walls, degrees, courses, or faculty; it’s a self-directed social walk through the magnificent resources available to anyone through the Internet and a few well-chosen books.

There’s a lot out there.  Dozens of websites and piles of books offer well-grounded pedagogical techniques.  The rise of online learning and social media spurred a further explosion of resources on technology-mediated education.  As I dove into the literature, I quickly recognized my own experience in many of the examples.  Not in the descriptions of what to do; in the back-stories on what one might do wrong.

I sometimes do things in the classroom that don’t work.  Or they work tolerably well, but not as well as I hoped.  Or I think they go smashingly, but the student evaluations come back mediocre.  So it’s comforting to hear experts in innovative teaching techniques relate how, before they developed these new models, they all did the same stupid things as I did.  I wasn’t new mistake, in other words.  I was making old ones.

For example, I tried in one of my classes to divide students up into groups.  The groups got the students more engaged, but their discussions didn’t really go anywhere.  Before long the groups fell apart.  From reading about collaborative and team-based learning, I’m realizing that I structured the group assignments and the group reporting processes wrong.  The solutions are fairly obvious when you think about them carefully and try various options.  I just never did.  Neither did a lot of other faculty, which is why there are books and seminars offering advice.

The more I recognize about the ways teaching can go wrong, the more respect I have for those who, unlike me, do it every day.  It so happens that this is Teacher Appreciation Week in the U.S.  As a tenured professor at an elite university, teaching is only part of my job.  Research, service to the field, engagement in public policy, and external activities take up the majority of my time during the course of a year.  Similarly, classroom interaction with me is only a tiny piece of the college or business school experience for my students.  Those who teach in elementary or high school, or in full-time teaching positions in college, deserve more credit and support than they typically receive.  Teachers aren’t perfect, and there’s a lot wrong with our educational systems.  What’s clear, though, is that teachers must be a big part of the solutions.   We shouldn’t ever forget that.

Back to my original point.  There’s a corollary to Esther’s slogan: Always make old mistakes.

I came to this realization when thinking about teaching, but it’s valuable across the board.  You have to make old mistakes before you can make the new mistakes.  It’s tempting to think that you can skip the old mistakes, but you can’t. That’s why they’re old; they’re mistakes that practically everyone makes. And sometimes you’re better off making old mistakes because that’s the best way to learn. Even if you might have avoided a mistake this one time, you won’t necessarily internalize the lesson that mistake teaches unless you go through it.

Old mistakes are embarrassing. We don’t want to admit that we fall into the same traps as everybody else. The lesson I’ve realized is to have the courage to always make old mistakes. If I hadn’t made the old mistakes about group reporting, then I wouldn’t have recognized what I needed to learn about managing group learning processes.

There’s a lesson here for entrepreneurs as well. Starting a company is all about making old mistakes. Repeat entrepreneurs have a higher hit rate because they’ve learned to overcome those old mistakes, but that’s only because they made them themselves the last time around. Learning comes from doing.

It’s often harder to accept the old mistakes that the new one, because we think that we are smarter than that. But we’re not; we’re all human. And it turns out there are more than enough old mistakes to go around. If you’re doing something sufficiently challenging like teaching, you’re going to avoid some, but you’re bound to make others. Thinking otherwise may be the worst mistake of all.