Mistakes vs failures

I have been noodling around about the difference between mistakes and failures.

“an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong”. (via Google)
“1. an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc. 2. a misunderstanding or misconception.” (dictionary.com)

1. lack of success.
“an economic policy that is doomed to failure”
synonyms: lack of success, nonfulfillment, defeat, collapse, foundering
fiasco, debacle, catastrophe, disaster; an unsuccessful person, enterprise, or thing.
2. the omission of expected or required action.
“their failure to comply with the basic rules”
synonyms: negligence, dereliction; (via Google)

“1. an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success:
His effort ended in failure. The campaign was a failure.

7. a person or thing that proves unsuccessful:
He is a failure in his career. The cake is a failure.” (dictionary.com)

I think in some simplistic corner (or neighborhood) of my mind, I believe that making mistakes is either indistinguishable from failure (they are one and the same); or that making mistakes leads inevitably to failure as a crack in the containment of a warp core leads irretrievably to the destruction of a star ship via a warp core breach. (sorry, not sorry)

(This is turning into a parenthetical post. Possibly that’s because I had a couple glasses of wine and played cello quartets with friends tonight.)

The bottom line is that I’ve spent a lot of my life investing both making mistakes and experiencing failure with moral judgment in one way or another. I’m not alone in this tendency: it is to a degree a familial pattern as well as a narrative inculcated by our culture. Look at the way we judge those of us who are not thin. Barring some inarguable medical condition making weight gain unavoidable, we believe that people should survive on cucumber peelings alone if that’s what it takes to tame their baser urges (for food) sufficiently to get as close as possible to a healthy slender and appealing figure.

I think I grew up believing that there’s a tipping point: a certain number or degree of mistakes drags an experience into the realm of failure, from which it cannot generally be redeemed.

I have heard all my life, of course, that we learn through our mistakes. I have never really gotten that at a deep level, never really believed it. I have taken it, more or less, as a sop offered by those more fortunate souls who are not tainted by failure, who are successful. Being successful, I have believed, really means never failing too hard, too visibly, or irredeemably.

Watching my oldest daughter in her journey with piano has changed my mind.

Sometimes I want to apologize to my children for taking so long to learn this shit that I had to learn it from them. And sometimes I want to thank them. And sometimes both. But really, we learn when we are ready, and sometimes that takes decades.

My oldest (sometimes) reacts to mistakes during practices as though they are evidence of failure. Watching her do that, I am starting to gain a clarity I didn’t have when I was a kid.


And that is not only because with repetition the probabilities for error increase. It is because mistakes can catch and hold our attention. Mistakes teach us the parameters of our world. They let us know what danger and possibility feel like. Without mistakes how could we feel desire, or elation, or the intense satisfaction of having learned and/or accomplished something?

I pray that as I parent my daughters I can help them find a sense of wild challenge in the face of their individual mistakes, to accept the consequences that may flow from those mistakes, and to live through the storms and suffocations of failure with an intact heart and vital spirit.

And that is also the gift I am making myself, again and again, as often as necessary.


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