Every once in a while on this campus known for high achievers, I overhear or take part in conversations that are totally counter-cultural. People talk about how good it feels to share with others about times when they really messed up.
I’ve seen this in several settings. Members of a class I taught last semester brought up the idea of having a “failure day” in which people are encouraged to talk about a moment when they’ve tried something with all their heart, and it hasn’t worked out. In a lunchtime discussion years ago, a student described reading the book Being Wrong, and feeling the relief of its rightness. Even this weekend, among a group of friends talking about family dynamics, one pointed out the great mistake of partners keeping score of who’s right… even though she admitted to still falling into that trap with her husband of fifty years.
As this year begins, I look forward to the many good things we’ll do together. I can imagine some of them in crystal-clear focus, and some will totally surprise me. But I’ve found that more of what we’d call “right” happens when people have permission to be their full selves, which includes being uncertain and sometimes, wrong.
So as our new and returning staff have set goals for our work this year, we’ve been very up-front that we will all make mistakes. When we do, it’s our job to support each other, see what went wrong, and address it together. Such shared vulnerability allows us to grow and learn as professionals and as people, rather than putting up barriers that block honesty, thoughtful self-examination, and the creative exploration of finding a better way.
I hope that as classes begin, whether you’re sitting in the seminar room seat, standing at the white board, or meeting students in their lives outside the classroom, you’ll talk about mistakes you’ve made and ask about others’. Because we all need to see the culture of always-being-right or always-working-the-hardest for what it is: a set-up for no one to actually succeed in the most life-giving and authentic ways.