Life’s learning curve

5 photos of caterpillar gradually turning into a butterfly
image: iStock / Getty

Mistakes are part of life’s learning curve.

But so many of us are afraid of making them. The thought of failure can feel like a dark cloud looming over us or a heavy object waiting to drop.

But does failure need to mean failure?

Failure to one person is success to another. You learned something, even if it was what not to do next time. Maybe you learned to ask for help. Or you’ve learned to change your approach. Or your insight is that there’s probably something else that’s better for you. Or you just learned … something.

I’m a tennis fan and watch, and play, a lot of tennis. I watched some of the US Open quarter final on my laptop very early yesterday morning featuring 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz and 21-year-old Jannik Sinner. It’s one of the highest quality matches I’ve ever seen and, at 5 hours 15 minutes, it was the second longest match in US Open history and the latest ever finish.

Alcaraz won in 5 close sets. As Sinner left the stadium to a standing ovation, one commentator wondered aloud if the loss would hit Sinner hard. The other responded with the musings of the great 400 metres hurdler, Ed Moses. He said, “Failure is not the end, but the beginning of the inner dialogue on which success depends.”

Ever since I was a child, I wondered what it took to ever reach mastery at something. We’re told hard work. That is only partly true. It takes a combination of work effort and mental dexterity; the ability to learn, adapt, fall, and pick yourself up again, time and time again. 

In the book Fail Fast, Fail Often, by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, the authors describe a study of two groups of art students in a pottery class.

One group was told that their grade at the end of the semester would be determined by the quantity of work they produce. If they produce 50 pounds of pots they get an A, 40 pounds gets them a B, 30 pounds a C, and so on. 

The other half of the class were told that they would be graded on the quality of their best piece of work. It wouldn’t matter if they only submitted one pot all semester. If it was good enough, it would get them an A. 

Who do you think produced the best work at the end of the semester, judged on technical and artistic sophistication?

We all want to say it was those focusing on quality, right? That seems like the right answer. They had ample time to design, hone, and refine their creation. But the quantity group produced the best work. 

How? It’s counterintuitive. They were simply mass producing pots. There’s no creativity in that.

But they weren’t mass producing the same pot. They were learning how to make pots. And they made numerous mistakes along the way, some of them disastrous. Each attempt taught them how to do it better. They refined and refined their approach as they went along. They learned new techniques, like how to shape the clay in new ways, honing their skills and talents with each iteration.

Those in the quality group spent much, much longer on each pot, refusing to submit it until it was just right

How many of us do this? How often do we hold back from putting our work out there until it’s just right? How often do we hold back from putting ourselves out there until we’re just right?

I learned an important lesson a few years ago while I was writing a book on self esteem (I Heart Me). You’d think I must have been an expert on self esteem to write such a book. Quite the opposite, really. I was sorely deficient in it.

My self esteem grew in the process of writing the book. If I’d have waited until I’d developed my self esteem first, before I began the book, I probably would never have written it. I’d still be working on my self esteem today, 7 years later, waiting for that time when I was ‘ready’.

Self esteem often lies just at the edge of your comfort zone. That’s what I learned. Instead of waiting until you have all the knowledge and skills first before you do a thing, do the thing first and you’ll gain the knowledge and skills along the way.

Most learning comes in the process of doing something, not before you do it. It’s the opposite to what most of us think is true. 

Many of us over prepare because we’re trying to avoid making a mistake or because we’re concerned with people’s perception of us. It’s OK to fail, to f**k up, to screw up, whatever you call it along the way. No one is spared it in life.

Falling down and getting up again is part of life. You can’t become good at something without first being rubbish at it. You get good at life by living it. Don’t let a fear of seeming ‘failure’ stop you trying something. Don’t let worry about making a mistake hold you back from spreading your wings. Don’t be so concerned with what people might think.

Just like the art students above, the more you try, the faster you learn and the better you get. Failure is just a word that we attach to what we think it means when we don’t reach a goal at that attempt. Swap fail for learn.

We thrive more as we do more. As I wrote in a blog a few weeks ago (Make a Start), you shine by stepping out into the light, not by polishing yourself in the dark.

I’m not only a fan of tennis. I play a lot too. I was a late starter. I played for the first time in my life when I was 45 years old. Living in Dunblane, childhood home to former world number 1 tennis players, Andy Murray (singles) and Jamie Murray (doubles), I had a lot of catching up to do.

I play in the club leagues, which consist of 11 divisions of 5 or 6 players. I started at the bottom and have worked my way up. But as I’ve improved, I’ve become more focused on winning. You would think that would help. In some ways, yes, but in other ways, no.

In tennis, there’s certain conditions that suit you best. It depends on your style and how you strike the ball.

I prefer to play when it’s dry (not always the case in Scotland) because the ball has a better bounce and rises to an optimum height for me. Some players play better when the conditions are damp because the ball stays low and gets fluffy. It suits them if they like to play the slice shot a lot.

I tend to peak around midday because I’ve been up for ages by then so my body has had time to loosen up. I also play best with nearly new balls because they travel faster when you strike them than ones that have been used several times.

So like some other players do, I’ve found myself trying to arrange matches with my opponents in conditions that best suited me. I’d study the weather forecast for a week in advance, selecting the day with the best chance of sunshine and trying to arrange a midday match on that day.

The trouble was that my tennis was stalling. Playing in the same conditions all the time wasn’t giving me the opportunity to learn and adapt, which you have to do in tennis … and in life.

I realised what I’d been doing after I read Fail Fast, Fail Often so I made a big change. I decided that, from now on, my new tennis philosophy would be that I’d play anyone, anytime, in any conditions, and using any balls. 

So I invited my next opponent to choose a day and time that suited him and I’d try to make it work, depending on my work requirements. We played at 9am on a Saturday morning, a time I’d previously avoided because I usually still feel a wee bit tight at that time. 

It was also damp. And we used his balls. They had a decent bounce but were very light so tend to fly further, which makes it more difficult to keep it in the court.

I had previously played him twice and lost heavily both times. But this time I won the match 7-6, 6-1. 

I learned how to adapt to the bounce and weight of the ball. Given the different, much slower, conditions, I had to play more patiently too, something I’d rarely done in the past. It was an amazing insight that transformed how I played. The second set was the best I’d ever played. I’d have missed this learning and gain if we’d played at midday.

I played my next opponent the following week. He suggested a 3pm start. He’s a very good player and has played most of his tennis over the years in the top division. I usually have an energy dip around 3pm, but my new philosophy of ‘any player, any time, any conditions, any balls’, called for me to agree to the match.

He had thrashed me 6-1, 6-1 just a month earlier but I approached this match with a mindset of learning. I wasn’t really concerned with what the score would be. I was looking forward to seeing what I could learn by playing at a different time of day and by playing with more patience against a better opponent.

He beat me again, but only just. He pipped it on a third set tie break. The match was strenuous and lasted almost two hours, well short of Alcaraz and Sinner and much less entertaining. But for my level it was a brilliant learning experience.

I didn’t mind losing because I again played the best I’d ever played. I entered those two matches not much concerned with whether I won or lost. My goal was to learn. Of course, it would have been nice to win because it was a game, after all, but it’s not always about winning.

I’ve come to appreciate that this type of approach serves us well in life in general. Seek to learn in life, not to win, and in the process of learning you’ll probably find that you win quite a bit more.

Don’t hold back from pursuing a dream because you don’t think you have the right knowledge or experience yet. 

Reid Tracy, CEO of Hay House told me, “You don’t have to get it right, you just have to get it started.” And I’ve since learned that when it’s started, in the process of doing it, you’ll learn to get it right. Or at least you’ll learn what’s right for you.

So don’t be afraid to fail. Be willing to learn.

The experience is all part of life’s learning curve.

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  1. Sarah Stones on September 9, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    What a brilliant reminder David – Thank you.

  2. Linda on September 9, 2022 at 5:36 pm

    I started taking pottery classes when I was 67 years old and coming from a devastating divorce. It has taken me a long time to get to where I am now with my pottery but I am still learning and enjoying every minute. Failure is a great teacher.
    Enjoy your posts very much.

    • Pia on September 13, 2022 at 11:15 am

      inspiring, live and let go – trust in life and see how you can use your skills every new day, wow I give it a try – adventure every day, sounds a bit overwhelming and scerry.0) let’s play and see what will come and unfolding ‍♀️
      I also read your sentence about “the pottery”, I admit, I don’t understood it “fully” before I have read this blog.0)
      Thx you often make my day with your words

  3. Sarah (yes, another one!) on September 10, 2022 at 9:47 am

    Absolutely love this blog. And, as is so often the case, your words of wisdom come at such a good time for me… Thank you xx

  4. Ellen on September 11, 2022 at 5:11 am

    Thanks for reminding me, that mistakes are a part of life, not the end of it

  5. Pia on September 13, 2022 at 11:19 am

    inspiring, live and let go – trust in life and see how you can use your skills every new day, wow I give it a try – adventure every day, sounds a bit overwhelming and scerry.0) let’s play and see what will come and unfolding ‍♀️
    I also read your sentence about “the pottery”, I admit, I don’t understood it “fully” before I have read this blog.0)
    Thx you often make my day with your words

  6. Jan Kennedy on October 30, 2022 at 11:14 am

    How blessed we are, who read your words.

    • David Hamilton on November 9, 2022 at 10:37 am

      Aw, thanks for your kind words, Jan. 🙂

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