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Time Out to Make Mistakes

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (December 31, 2015)

Recently, social media exploded with the news of Steve Harvey’s very public and embarrassing mistake. Steve Harvey was the host of this year’s Miss Universe and the culminating moment came when everyone around the world gathered to watch the announcement of the final winner. It was a race between Miss Colombo and Miss Philippines and people

braced themselves for who was to be crowned with the coveted title of Miss Universe. Steve Harvey, on live TV, announced it was Miss Colombo and only moments later, as Miss Colombo was soaking up her crowing glory, did Steve interrupt and admit his mistake – Miss Philippines was the actual winner. The crown was then passed to Miss Philippines but the attention was on Steve more than her. Steve Harvey had made the very public mistakes of announcing the wrong Miss Universe. And for the hours and days since then, he has had to face public shaming and ridicule on the news and media.

I’ll admit it’s a pretty big mistake to have committed on live TV and I feel pretty bad for Miss. Colombo. It’s not easy to think you won something, only to have it taken away moments later. But having read some of the comments towards Steve Harvey, I feel like they’re pretty harsh. I am someone who believes in striving for excellence and that includes preparing well for something and doing everything to the best of our ability. However, I think there’s something wrong when we are striving for perfection.

There’s a difference between excellence and perfection. In my view, striving for excellence denotes the attitude and effort in which we achieve something. The end product is a result of that attitude and effort. Striving for perfection, however, is merely looking at the end product and not allowing room for mistakes. In our world today, we are slow to compliment but quick to judge; slow to praise what is right but quick to point out what is wrong.

And we do that with our children too. If they are asked to do ten things and they do nine things correctly but one thing wrongly, chances are we have immediately spotted the one thing and highlighted it to them, over acknowledging how they did nine things correctly.

And that kind of attitude in striving for perfection causes a few problems. Firstly, it doesn’t allow room for mistakes and in all learning, mistakes help us improve. In the words of Edison who took 10,000 tries before he invented the lightbulb, “I haven’t failed. I have merely found 10,000 ways that work”. Every mistake made helps us to learn something new so we can improve. So when your child comes home with mistakes on his dictation paper, see it as an opportunity for learning, not for shouting at. It doesn’t give the excuse to make the same mistakes every time but genuine mistakes should propel us to learn from them and to improve.

Secondly, striving for perfection creates the problem of being fearful of trying new things. Trying new things, whether tackling a challenging Math problem or inventing a new machine, requires risk and the possibility of failure. However, if the goal of learning is to not make mistakes, then the natural choice is to not try anything too difficult for fear of making mistakes. This leads people to always stay within their comfort zones and not try anything new, thereby not learn anything new. As parents and educators, we need to stretch and challenge children to enable them to grow and develop; and part of the process is giving them new things to try that likely ensue in mistakes.

Thirdly, striving for perfection impedes us from developing the growth mindset. Professor Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford University, talks about the importance of lifelong learning through developing the ‘growth mindset’ – the belief that our capacities can increase with being stretched. It’s about growing and learning, not about achieving perfection.

So the next time your child makes a mistake, take the time out to appreciate his/her effort in trying, to recognize how it’s an opportunity to learn from the mistake and to celebrate how it will help him/her develop the growth mindset. Oh, and don’t forget to do the same when you’re the one that’s making the mistake!

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