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Is there such a thing as a 'right mistake?'

What goes through your mind before you try something new? Do you think about all the things that could go wrong...all the outcomes you'd like to avoid?


Do you consider which of those wrongs you'd want to avoid the most?



Mrs. Graham is our family's piano teacher. She tells my kids, weekly, they should practice so that they NEVER make a mistake. Ridiculous, right? I agree. When she first said this out loud my brain resisted every part of the idea.


Mistakes are necessary! Mistakes are how we learn! Mistakes are at the very core of progress! (and also...mistakes have to be important, otherwise what do I do with allll the ones I've made over the years??)


What is she teaching my children?!


Mrs. Graham is teaching my children to "Stop. Prepare."


After watching her use it for a couple of years now, I've realized that "Stop. Prepare." isn't really about making no mistakes (even though that's what she says). It's really about choosing which mistakes to make. When the kids are learning a new piece of music, the first milestone is getting the right notes under their fingers. "Stop. Prepare." forces her students to not play the next notes until they know they're about to play the right ones. In other words, no guessing!


"Stop. Prepare." is really about not making any note mistakes. This prevents her students from training their fingers on the wrong pattern, because the more often they play the wrong notes early on, the more automatic they become, and the harder it is to unlearn them. "Stop. Prepare." forces them to prioritize their learning work: to focus on the first and most important priority (get the right notes, in this case).


Her students are still making mistakes. She's just choosing which ones she wants them to make.


Music, by it's very nature is rhythmic. It requires relatively strict adherence to the rules of rhythm in order for it to make sense to our ears. "Stop. Prepare." violates these rules. Stop-Prepare is actually building in mistakes. Mrs. Graham is teaching her students to sacrifice quality in one specific area, in order to excel in another.


It's an exceptional way to practice - an exceptional way to develop any new craft.

How can you use it the next time you are learning something new?


1) Articulate what you want to get good at.


Learning something new is never about learning only one thing. There are always multiple pieces to the pie that make up our version of success. Outline them. For example, lately I've been building my Deep Work muscles (this is a Cal Newport concept from his book by the same title - if you're a knowledge worker, put it on your list!). For my Deep Work to make a difference in my professional life, I know there are a few steps to getting there:


a) do Deep Work on the most critical thing that will drive my success (develop content)

b) allocate enough time (at least two, 3hr blocks)

c) be consistent (weekly)

Before I learn anything new, I have to get clear on what, specifically growth looks like.


2) Decide which mistakes you WILL make!


Even as I write this it sounds so quirky. I mean mistakes, by definition, are accidental, right? We don't actually choose to make any mistakes. Don't they just...sneak up on us?


Not nearly as often as we'd like to believe. Increasing the Deep Work in my schedule has not come easily. I decided though, that I would initially sacrifice both a) and b) for the sake of c). I started by blocking out chunks of time (90 minutes) in several spots in my weekly calendar. I just block some time out, every week. In other words, as I start to build this new skill, I'm deciding not to worry about the quality of my Deep Work time...yet, or even the quantity...yet. Initially, I want to develop the habit of making space for it. Although quality will ultimately be more important than quantity, I've decided that nothing will happen if I don't first create some space for Deep Work in my calendar. So, the quality of my Deep Work stinks right now. And that's okay.


The lesson in "Stop. Prepare." is to commit to polishing the first thing first.


If you journey with me as a Balanced Manager, you know that I believe in an order of operations to everything we learn. "Stop. Prepare." is this principle at play. When we invest in developing a new skill (or polishing a sloppy one), we benefit from deciding what the first thing is - the place where we will get the most leverage from improving. Then....


Decide. Do. Repeat.


3) Don't settle.


Once you've put the first thing first, and you've developed it to your satisfaction, add the next thing. In my Deep Work example, I've decided I want to be consistent for 4 weeks before I start lengthening my chunks and becoming more intentional with them. I'm going to tackle quality next, and then longer stretches. Could I do it the other way? Probably. My point is this: Don't settle. Don't lie to yourself. Don't pretend you've accomplished what you haven't.


If this thing is important enough to learn, it's important enough to master. Master it.


These three steps have a way of making mistakes part of the plan when we're learning. Because they are how we learn, they are necessary and they are at the core of progress. Accidental mistakes will still happen. Sometimes we're in a class of one and we still get 2nd place...



In those cases...we push on, we move through the gap between what we did and what we know we were capable of, and we recommit to the next round. We can't control all our mistakes and we shouldn't want to.


And still...making mistakes part of the plan when we're learning, by using a little "Stop. Prepare," can bring focus and intentionality to our learning and our practicing. Ultimately, this gets us where we want to go more deliberating and as a result, much more quickly.


Learn away!




p.s. there's one more lesson I'm taking from Stop-Prepare....coming soon!

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