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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

How To Never Make A Mistake Again

Musician making a mistake

It’s midwinter but I can feel moisture forming in my palms. I’m thirsty and starting to get short of breath.

Being unable to speak and having sweaty hands is not a good look when you’re about to meet a bunch of people for the first time. Especially when those people are about to interview you for a job. But no matter what I do, breathing deeply, thinking of a beach in Bali, or trying to get lost in social media feeds, I can’t shake the fact that I’m nervous.

I’ve had a growing feeling over the past week that I’m not prepared for this interview. My strategy had been to push those thoughts to the side and try to do some preparation in the hope that they would fade. However, now I’m sat here, moments away from the very thing I’m dreading, I feel like I should have taken a different tact.

The start of the interview is quick and uneventful. So far, so good. Hi. Hello. How are you kind of stuff. Nothing special. Once the small talk is out of the way we move to the details. I make it over the first few hurdles before I begin to feel my breath shortening once again. I’m sliding out of my depth. I manage to stay afloat for a few more questions – not making any progress and only just keeping my head above water.

Then it hits. A question. A hard one. No answer. I’m lost. I’m silent… 10 seconds… 15 seconds… 20 seconds pass. He looks worried.

I say something nonsensical to give myself more time. No matter how hard I try, the circuits have stopped firing. My brain has shut down. I don’t have an answer. Instead, I grab furiously at something vaguely related and throw it out there.

“No. That’s not right at all.” is the response.

Blank faces. Looking down. Making notes. I think the interview might be over.

Your imagination is failing you

The thing is, we all make mistakes. Often they are not as dramatic as the one I’ve just described in my interview above. But they happen all the time.

What holds us back is not our mistakes but the fear that surrounds them. We fear making mistakes and then we’re fearful of what they say about us. Both sides of this equation cause us trouble.

Getting caught in our fears is a seductive habit. We enjoy getting sucked into some fantasy about what could go wrong. We start playing the ‘what if’ game. Like, ‘what if I screw up my wedding speech?’ or ‘what if I totally flunk this driving lesson?’ or ‘what if I wear the wrong clothes to this date?’. All valid things to avoid trying to do.

But if you’ve ever gotten deep into the ‘What If’ game you’ll realise that, similar to Monopoly, it can drag on for hours. And there is no winner unless one side achieves complete domination – in this case, your fear totally over-riding your logic.

Being fearful of mistakes is a vicious feedback loop. Fear drives anxiety about making a mistake. Increased anxiety creates a lack of confidence. A lack of confidence results in low self-belief. And when we arrive at the moment, we’re all the more likely to make a mistake because of the process we’ve just been through. After this happens, our fears have been confirmed and we loop back to start again.

We make mistakes because we’re worried about making them and then we don’t learn from them because we’re paralysed by the same fears repeating themselves. Our fear of mistakes produces more mistakes. The irony is painful.

But perhaps there is a bright side. Perhaps you don’t have anything to fear in the first place…

The most beautiful way to get it wrong

The year is 1963 and we are sat at a jazz bar in Stuttgart, Germany. The night is hot and on stage are some of the best musicians in the world. Miles Davis is with his quintet – Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, Wayne Shorter on saxophone.

The band begin playing ‘So What’. Between sips of your scotch, you might notice Hancock drop a strange chord into the jam. His face screws up and he covers his ears in pain – that didn’t feel right at all and everyone heard it.

But Miles is leading the band. He stops only for a nanosecond before elaborating on the unexpected chord. Several notes later and it’s all been seamlessly tied together. He continues to play and the show goes on. Hancock explained:

“What I realize now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened, just an event and so that was part of the reality of what was happening at that moment. He dealt with it. He found something that, since he didn’t hear it as a mistake, he felt it was his responsibility to find something that fit. He was able to do that.”

This was Miles Davis’ philosophy at large. His life was jazz and jazz was his life. When he stood up on stage, he was a Zen master allowing any event that took place to be ‘right’. He had no attachments to the way things should be done. He was simply letting the music unfold and responding.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” – Miles Davis

Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do about a mistake is to accept it. Shrug your shoulders, re-adjust and keep on playing to the best of your ability.

You’ve never made a mistake

Here’s an idea: you’ve never actually made a mistake. Yep, your record is clean. The only thing you’ve done is put learning opportunities in the wrong category.

When we make a mistake we resign ourselves to failure. We’re Herbie Hancock on that summer evening, covering our ears, admitting that we are wrong. But we don’t get much in return for that. We surrender to the mistake rather than own it.

Let’s imagine that moving forward you recategorise every mistake you make as a lesson instead. Because we’re human, we’re going to make plenty. Which means you’ve got a lot of opportunities ahead to improve yourself.

“What is defeat? Nothing but education. Nothing but the first step to something better.” — Wendell Phillips

We all need to have moments in our life where our aims and expectations don’t line up with reality. What we can learn from Miles is that every wrong chord is an education. It’s the first step to making new, unexpected and interesting compositions. After all, whoever did anything interesting by always getting things ‘right’?

Your character is defined by how you recover after tripping up. Some of us do it with grace while the rest of us make a meal of it. Look at your mistakes as part of your own unique riff on life and it’s a lot easier to do the latter.

The Right Notes Are Out There

A funny thing happened after I bombed on that question in the interview. A weight was lifted. It was as if the worst had actually happened and now I could shed the burden of worrying and just be myself. I spent the last 10 minutes having an interesting conversation and left feeling light and breezy.

I knew I would not get a job offer the moment I left that building. But there was also a feeling that I was walking away with something valuable from the whole experience. The mistake I’d made was teaching me an important lesson.

I’m writing this in part to console my future self. I know that I will one day be in another uncomfortable situation facing sweaty palms and hard questions. Except that future me will take a deep breath and see there is no mistake.

Only fear and lack of perspective hold us back.

Rather than freeze, I’ll sway in the breeze of the moment and see what comes forth. Next time I’m about to screw up, know that I’ll be channelling Miles Davis to get through.

And you can too. Take a second to pause in the face of your next mistake. Observe. Ask what happened? How can I learn from it? And what can I do to continue? Then remind yourself that there is always another chord to be played.

I hope you can find it.

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[…] few weeks back I wrote about how mistakes are just opportunities for learning that have been inaccurately categorised. Making a mistake and not realising it’s an opportunity to learn is forgivable and something […]