The Beautiful and Necessary Art of Making Mistakes

Dr Rashna Taraporewalla
Teacher-in-Charge of History, Years 7 and 8

It is a truth which ought to be universally acknowledged that all humans err. A basic part of the human condition is that we stumble, we fall, we blunder. Yet despite the smattering of platitudes which we offer others in their ‘wrongtitude’ — after all, everyone makes mistakes, nobody is perfect — we insist on feeling privately ashamed of our own mistakes. In truth, we secretly imagine — quite naturally — that we are capable of accomplishing perfection in all areas of our life. It naturally follows that each slip is deemed a useless obstacle to our transformation into our ultimate, perfect, form. To be mistaken, therefore, is a state of which the ambitious have an understandable inclination to feel extremely scared.

We ought not chastise ourselves too harshly for this fear. After all, ours is a performance culture in which outcome and achievement are emphasised over process, and in which mistakes are not valued, or worse, are punished. Encultured at school, we learn from a young age to equate high marks in tests with success in school. Mistakes can play no positive role if results are all that matters in education. The consequences of this line of thinking are concerning. As Alina Tugend, journalist for the New York Times, has observed:

We’re raising a generation of children — primarily in affluent, high-achieving [schools] — who are terrified of blundering. Of failing. Of even sitting with the discomfort of not knowing something for a few minutes … They’re scared to raise their hands when they don’t know the answer and their response to a difficult problem is to ask the teacher rather than try different solutions that might, gasp, be wrong (2011).

It is natural within an atmosphere such as this to come to the conclusion that mistakes are bad, and further, that to make a mistake reflects poorly upon ourselves.

While the modern world permits only the smallest margin of error, not all societies have been so unforgiving. Through tragedy, the Ancient Athenians collectively explored the fact that humans are radically limited and prone to making mistakes. Each year in the spring, at large, city-wide festivals in honour of the god Dionysos, audiences composed of a wide cross-section of the citizen body (and their wives) would gather in an open-air theatre in the shadow of the Acropolis. There they would watch unfold stories of grave failure which made it ominously clear that serious mistakes are possible. Heroes (to whom shrines were dedicated all over Greece) break minor and archaic laws, make poor decisions in the midst of conflict, and sleep with the wrong person. According to Aristotle, the intent of such stories was to arouse pity and fear through the reversal of status of the tragic hero occurring at the moment when he realises the nature of his hamartia (flaw or mistake) (Poetics, 13–4). His misfortune is brought about not by any inherent vice or depravity, but rather by some error or frailty. Even the good can mess up.

The Japanese of the Muromachi period were equally philosophical in their approach to blunders. It was during the reign of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1449–73) that Japan saw the growth of Higashiyama culture, famous for Noh drama and the sado (tea ceremony). Porcelain teacups of the kind used in the sado were exquisite exemplars of pristine symmetry. According to tradition, when Yoshimasa broke his favorite teacup and sent it to be repaired in China, he was unimpressed by the ugly metal staples used to piece the broken fragments back together. The Shogun instructed his own craftsmen to mend the teacup in a more aesthetically pleasing way, and in response, the artisans developed the technique known as kintsugi (gold joinery) which used veins of lacquer flecked with gold powder to join the broken sherds. The technique approached repair as an opportunity to emphasise, rather than disguise, the breakage as an important episode in the history of the object. It embodies the aesthetic of wabi sabi, an acceptance of the imperfect and flawed. The result is beautiful, a piece of added aesthetic complexity, a ‘tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach’ (Gopnik, 2009). In this way, kintsugi is a poetic way of insisting that mistakes do indeed happen, and should be embraced.

Though we are only beginning to understand, in neurological terms, the importance of failure, recent studies of the neural mechanisms involved in our response to error confirm that the ancients were right to accept the human capacity to err. It has been clear for some decades now that the synapses in our brains fire when we make a mistake. More recently, a group of neuroscientists, based in the Netherlands, established that the amplitude of this response, at the moment an error is perceived, is directly linked to our capacity to learn to avoid similar mistakes in the future (van der Helden, Boksem and Blom, 2010). What is more stunning is the finding that the synapses of those who view failure as potentially instructive feedback respond more quickly and at a much higher amplitude than those of people who avoid making mistakes altogether (Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran and Lee, 2011). This supports the work of Carol Dweck, whose model of implicit theories of intelligence distinguishes between those of a growth mindset, who believe that mistakes are an important part of the learning process, and those of a fixed mindset, who disengage from tasks when they perceive a potential for failure (Dweck, 2006). Science has thus confirmed that the Ancient Athenians and the Japanese practitioners of wabi sabi, well-prepared to admit to, and embrace, their capacity for error, were in a better position to learn from their mistakes than those less willing to accept failure so philosophically. In an age that insists upon perfection, it is the duty of both educators and parents to encourage young minds to eschew a fear of error and replace it with a more constructive relationship with mistakes.


Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Gopnik, B. (2009, March 3). ‘Golden seams: The Japanese art of mending ceramics’ at Freer. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Moser, J.S., Schroder, H.S., Heeter, C., Moran, T.P., & Lee Y.H. (2011). Mind your errors: evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mind-set to adaptive post-error adjustments. Psychological Science, 22(12), 1484–9.

van der Helden, J., Boksem, M.A., & Blom, J.H. (2010). The importance of failure: feedback-related negativity predicts motor learning efficiency. Cereb Cortex, 20(7), 1596–603.

Tugend, A. (2011). The role of mistakes in the classroom. Edutopia. Retrieved from