Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about mistakes, learning, and growth. More on that shortly…
Today I had reason to look over the different kinds of work and jobs I did last year. Often, when I look at things like my jobs and income, it turns into an exercise in embarrassment and self-criticism. Seriously, what’s wrong with you? Everybody else your age has a “real” job. (Sidebar: I know plenty of artists with working lives like mine, but my inner critic tends to forget about that.) Why are you so stubborn? Why can’t you do things the way an adult is supposed to?
Last year was a year of changes. My husband had just retired, and I wanted to take up slack with income, and we had to figure out how we were going to manage some things that we’d always taken for granted. At the same time, 2017 was the year my first book came out. Going into 2018, I felt my professional life and goals shifting. I wanted to move more fully over to my writer-side and explore the possibilities there.
As I looked over what happened last year, I realized that one way or another, I did all of those things. It didn’t always feel like it at the time. Most of the time I seemed to be scrambling, worrying, and self-criticizing endlessly. You need to be earning more. What do you mean, new career goals? You’re pushing forty. You don’t have that luxury anymore. When are you going to grow up? In spite of all that, I worked some jobs, brought in some money, got through the day-to-day…and on top of that, wrote a new book I’m pretty proud of. And in spite of all the noise in my head, sometimes the process was actually fun.
As I looked back over those experiences, I realized how rarely I’m able to feel proud of myself. My reflex is always to find things to criticize. If I’m not perfect, or “the best” (whatever the definition of that might be), I’m not enough. The reflex is a byproduct of depression, anxiety, and the messages I got when I was growing up. My inner critic tells me that mistakes can’t happen. I have to do things right on the first try. At any given moment, I have to be whatever is required: there is never room for learning, growth, experimentation, or change.
I’ve criticized myself for having new goals, as if somehow the fact of having them means that my earlier goals were mistakes. (And, of course, my critic says that mistakes aren’t allowed.) I’ve criticized myself for changing my focus and reaching out to explore what I might be able to do as a writer and a teacher of writing. You wanted to be a musician. Isn’t that enough? And again, my critic is right there with a loud What’s wrong with you? But slowly, with many stumbles, I’m trying to change my own thought patterns.
To do that, I’m trying to plant three ideas in my head:
- Problems can be solved.
- Mistakes can be rectified, learned from, and forgiven.
- (this one is the hardest) Change and growth are not mistakes: nor do they have to mean that mistakes were made.
As we go into spring (finally!), I’m reaching toward my new goals again. One of them has to do with my new book, which I would love to see out in the world. Another – a big one – has to do with the kind of work I hope to do as a teacher of writing. I’m pulling together, reorganizing, and restructuring some scattered ideas I’ve had over the past year or so. Leading my first writers’ workshop has taught me a lot about teaching, and what kind of teacher I hope to be. Plans are in the works. Spring feels like a good time to give them my best energy.
To do that, I have to recognize that, yes, I’m allowed to grow. I’m allowed to change. New and different priorities are allowed, and if I want to do good work on them, I have to develop new skills. That means learning. I might make mistakes, but that’s how learning works.
When I insist on being perfect, I’m only getting in my own way. Trying to live up to an impossible standard will shut me off to learning and slow me down. If I focus on “how good I am” and “how I measure up” to whoever or whatever is around me, I’m thinking about myself rather than the work I need to do (and also probably burning a lot of energy feeling anxious, aggressive, defensive, and depressed). The work matters more than the mental games ever could.
I don’t have to be perfect. Right now, at this moment, I don’t have to be everything I’ll ever want or need to be. I’ve gotten where I am through a process of growth – however reluctant it was – and that growth can only continue.
It’s hard to remember, but I’m going to try. The work deserves it.