Head of School Blog: Mistake Club

Matt Green
Mistake Club: Confessions of a Day Dreamer, an Over-Promiser, and a People Pleaser

Did you know that Falmouth Academy now has a “Mistake Club”? The members of our latest student organization, founded and led by the eleventh grader, Henry Quan, meet weekly for lunch to share and advise one another about the mistakes they’ve made, and what can be learned from them.  The premise is simple: we all make mistakes; instead of keeping them secret, let’s talk them out with people who can help us see our mistakes as the opportunities they are. 

I suspect you will read much more about Henry's ambitions for The Mistake Club in a future post; he is absolutely passionate about it. But in this space, I’d like to share a few highlights from my turn as a guest speaker at last Thursday’s gathering. 

I expect I won’t be the first to open my remarks by quipping, “Well, if you want to hear about mistakes, you’ve come to the right guy.”  The evening before, I sat at my kitchen table trying to call up some of the stories I might share with the students, an exercise that was equal parts hilarious and uncomfortable.  (It should be noted that my wife Jennifer was quite helpful!)

I decided to share three kinds of mistakes, each accompanied by a slightly cringeworthy but entirely appropriate autobiographical nugget:
  • The Mistake of the Distracted Driver
  • The Mistake of the Over-promiser
  • The Mistake of the People Pleaser
Unfortunately, the Mistake of the Distracted Driver can play out literally, especially with adolescents. The practice of texting-while-driving has claimed too many promising lives.  I use the term, however, to refer to the mistakes we make because we are just not present in the moment.  Careless mistakes like losing your keys, neglecting a birthday, or, in my case, forgetting to pick your kids up at the bus, are the result of a form of distracted driving. Of thinking about the past or worrying about the future.  I made a lot of mistakes like this before I finally listened to the advice a mentor once offered: “Matt, be where your feet are.”

I offered the Mistake of the Over-promiser for the Type-A’s, the overachievers among us who always think we can add one more thing to our plates. We may feel guilty that we’ve not been doing our part, as in this, perhaps, familiar scenario:
Earlier that morning, “Any chance you can pick up the dry cleaning on your way home from work?”
“Um,” consulting busy calendar,  “Sure.  What time do they close?”
“Are you sure?  You know that I am wearing that dress tomorrow?”
“Um, yeah I can do it.  No problem.” 
Later that night, “Did you get my dry cleaning?”
Of course, the stakes are often much higher for the over-promiser.  The temptation to suggest in the moment that you can deliver something you cannot is often difficult to resist.  I told the students that my nickname at my first job was, “Hinge-head,” because whatever they asked me to do, I nodded my head yes.  I made a lot of mistakes before I learned how to say no.

Finally, there is the Mistake of the People Pleaser. People pleasers are fueled by the approval of others.  They hate disappointing colleagues, parents, or partners and are prone to avoiding conflict or dispute even when that is exactly what the situation requires.  They’ll succumb to peer pressure or they’ll compromise a principle or they’ll “put on a happy face,” even if they aren’t particularly happy.  I made a lot of mistakes before I realized that you just cannot please all of the people all of the time.  You usually have to choose and when you do, it’s best to listen to your heart or your gut, what is sometimes referred to as that “still small voice.”  When I was considering being a Head of School, my mother gave me good advice before the interview: “Better be yourself because if you try to be someone else and they like that guy, you’ll be stuck being that guy forever.”

In an essay entitled, “The Mistake Imperative- Why We Must Get Over Our Fear of Student Failure,” Youki Terada cites a 2018 study in which a group of neuroscientists at Caltech discovered that mistakes set off an almost instantaneous chain reaction of productive brain activity.  “The human brain is agnostic,” she writes, “and makes good use of the data—mistakes are crucial pieces of information that force a cognitive reckoning, pushing the brain to reconcile contradictory information and build more accurate durable solutions.”

Terada goes on to list a number of suggestions for creating a “mistake-friendly” classroom, the first of which is “Acknowledge that the fear is real.”  To that end, she quotes psychiatrist Angela Duckworth, who would fit right in with The Mistake Club when she suggests that "we have to learn to replace the thought ‘I’m stupid’ with another thought:

“‘I’m learning.’” 
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