We Must Be Mistaken

5It starts with the X

When I was a classroom teacher, I had a box of red pens. Marking a paper or a test, I might make an encouraging comment or point out something well written, but mostly I marked wrong answers. Mistakes. So why did I call attention to the wrong answers? With rare exceptions, the correct answers far outnumbered the errors. The red mark drew attention—mine and theirs—to what was wrong as if that was more important.

Red marks start in our childhood and accumulate corrosively. Whereas X marks the spot of the treasure in pirate stories, it marks the spot of disappointment in our life stories.

Crime and punishment

Why do we punish mistakes?  Do we hold some ridiculous hope that someday we’ll emerge into a life free from error?

Just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that people do the best they can. Mistakes, by definition, may be due to carelessness, but never to intent. If I intentionally screw something up, that’s not a mistake either. A mistake is when our intent goes off the track. Most of the mistakes we make are not fatal. Forgetting to replace the toilet paper may be embarrassing, but it’s seldom life-threatening. Maybe it is just old habits.

For most of the human story, we were hunters. We were also prey. Most of our decisions were of the eat or be eaten variety. But being late to pick up the dry cleaning or forgetting to get eggs at the store are about neither life nor death. So why the punishment, external or self-inflicted, when we forget to pack the right socks?

Punishing Mistakes Teaches the Wrong Lessons

Let’s learn to sidestep that bad/wrong impulse. Punishing mistakes hijacks our development.

First, we learn the wrong lessons. If mistakes bring punishment, we acquire skills to avoid getting caught, to shift the blame, make excuses, justify, argue, counterpunch. Rather than focus on learning and problem solving, we master hiding and defending. What we are left with is a wasted opportunity.

When we’re worn down by criticism, our creative intelligence disengages. If we’re afraid of making mistakes, we avoid exploration and discovery. As Thomas Edison suggested, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We can change our thinking to accept that each way that didn’t work can be another step toward one that will. Supervisors who punish mistakes, even subtly, get employees who are afraid to give their best.

We erode interdependence as we dish out or absorb blame. If I can’t count on you to accept my imperfection, why on earth should I drop my guard and be open and fearless with you? And if I can’t find common ground without seeing fault first, why should you? A mistake is such a great conversation starter, but only if fault is completely off the table.

Fear stunts leadership’s development. Most performance problems are due not to capacity or shoddy intent, but to cluelessness. Either too little information, the wrong information, or unforeseen consequences. We can all improve our performance by taking in feedback that suggests a better way to do it next time. When we castigate someone—including ourselves, our focus is on the past, and the past is non-negotiable.

What Can We Do?

First, lighten up.

Anger, frustration, reprimanding, all trigger what’s called amygdala hijack—a cloud of emotions that impedes our ability to listen and make sense.

Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Children’s Philharmonic Orchestra—suggests that when we make a mistake, the appropriate response is to throw our hands in the air, raise our eyebrows, and exclaim How fascinating!!! Try it next time you blunder. Really. It will give you a great platform for a blameless conversation.

Try to shift the focus to the future. Not just future performance, but the future of the relationship. Criticism does not build trust. Finger-pointing does not model courage. A learner-friendly environment grows in the atmosphere of mutual respect, not mutual correction.

Let’s lose the X.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. This is spot on.

    As companies leap into the current catch phrase of this decade (aka: the Agile Product Development train), this guidance should be front and center. And in every employee handbook.

    Creativity and fascination with unexpected outcomes are the only two emotions necessary when a team attempts to bring a concept into “the Real World”.

    Cultivate and nurture this and literally the universe shifts. As I’m learning, we intuitive adults must be mindful of the spaces Surrounding our thoughts, allowing beauty and truth to swoop in and delight all our souls!