From the moment I stepped on the dance floor, I knew I was in way over my head.
I was a newbie at the Blue Dragonfly, a Thursday night salsa dancing hot spot in Portland, Oregon. Only moments earlier, I had made the mistake of approaching one of the best dancers in the place, a beautiful woman with exotic tattoos. Although we hadn’t yet begun dancing, the butterflies in my stomach were already doing the mambo.
When the music kicked in, I boldly attempted the most complicated move I had learned in beginning salsa class—a hard-to-execute combination of spins, quick pivots, twists and turns. The result was memorable: an awkward tangle of arms, legs and bruised toes.
To the casual observer, my ill-fated attempt to dance with someone so good so soon was clearly an embarrassing mistake. I just wasn’t ready. But according to a growing body of educational research, making such mistakes early and often, through an enlightened process of trial and error, is actually the quickest way to learn any new subject, discipline or skill.
Think about it: When did you ever learn something of value by doing it perfectly the first time?
For the past 10 years, I have made a concerted effort to accelerate my personal learning process by embracing mistakes instead of fearfully avoiding them. Regardless of what you want to learn—whether for school or work, salsa dancing or otherwise—perhaps the following three strategies can help you, too, make more effective mistakes in your everyday life.
1. Make Faster Mistakes
To learn any new skill, there are two primary paths: Either seek to limit your mistakes by carrying out a deliberate program of systematic study and careful execution, or else boldly experiment through an organic process of trial and error.
In the book "Art & Fear," the authors test the efficacy of each path by describing a ceramics class in which half the students were graded on the artistic quality
of a single work while the other half was judged on the sheer quantity
of their output (as measured by the total weight of all pieces created).
Here were the surprising results: Those graded on quantity
also created the highest quality
work. Instead of attempting to craft flawless initial designs like the "quality" group, the "quantity" group had busily produced piles and piles of product—learning immeasurably from each new mistake made throughout the process.
Simply put, to learn ceramics or anything else more quickly, the key may be to make mistakes more rapidly. Fail faster to succeed sooner.
2. Make Smarter Mistakes
A "smart mistake" is one with a high potential value in experience gained compared to a relatively low cost—a scenario where the trial-and-error process is weighted heavily in your favor.
Because we spend so much time in the typical learning process on "input" (trying to record, remember and assimilate the new information we are constantly receiving), any opportunities to "output" what we have learned (by actually implementing the lessons in real-world settings) has the potential for high value. The less familiar we are with a particular field—salsa dancing certainly qualifies as one for me—the larger the potential experience gains may be.
On the flip side, most mistakes made when learning a new skill or discipline will have low costs as long as we can shrug off embarrassment and keep a positive attitude. Sure, I may have looked goofy on the dance floor, but so what? If the road to success is paved with failure, then why worry about the little potholes along the way?
3. Make Intentional Mistakes
When most people experiment through trial and error, their goal is to confirm their initial assumptions. If they are sure a particular approach will fail, they won't see the need to test it at all.
But what if your initial assumptions are flawed? What if challenging these core assumptions is a key driver of discovery and innovation?
Legendary advertising executive David Ogilvy, for instance, was known for including in his testing so-called "mistake" ads that he was certain wouldn't work. While most were disasters as expected, a few became surprising hits, leading him to study them more closely for the hidden lessons they revealed.
On the dance floor, I’ve even summoned the courage at times to try executing some steps precisely the "wrong" way. By better understanding through direct experience what causes those dance floor mishaps, I have subsequently become more adept at executing the "right" technique.
Although I'm still far from a salsa sensation, I didn't hesitate to ask that same woman from the club to dance when I saw her a few weeks later. After I managed to string together a few moves while avoiding her endangered toes, she surprisingly flashed me the universal facial expression for "not too shabby."
Though we may be taught as kids that "two wrongs don’t make a right," when it comes to learning salsa dancing or anything else, committing many
wrongs may increase the odds that one day we get it right.