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On messing up and lifelong learning


This week, I had a job interview – well, more of a meeting about an ongoing freelance gig. But there was a question I didn’t know the answer to. I said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know’. I didn’t get the job. But I don’t regret my answer.


I think it’s a significant life skill to be aware of what you don’t know. On reflection, there are probably better ways of putting it; sometimes saying you don’t know might sound more like ‘I’m still working on that’ or ‘it’s not my strong suit’ or ‘I’m on a journey’. And while life isn’t about knowing everything or figuring it all out, it’s worth trying to do better next time.


One of my favourite pieces of Zadie Smith’s writing isn’t her much-lauded novels, but a collection of essays, ‘Changing my Mind’, which reflects on the enlightenment that it takes to be able to shift your perspective through lived experience, rather than remain in a rigid mindset. It would be easy to make a joke here about Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote about ‘unknown unknowns’. He might need a better speechwriter, but he wasn’t wrong. Those who aren’t afraid to say they don’t know, or to take a risk and fail, learn lessons that they wouldn’t be able to from blagging it or avoiding the issue. It takes emotional intelligence and bravery to admit you don’t have it all figured out – and that you plan on learning from the results of your bumbling attempts at life. Elizabeth Day nailed this concept in her fantastic book ‘How to Fail’ which arose from her hugely popular podcast, in which celebrities and highly successful individuals focus not on what they’ve achieved but the ways they feel they’ve failed. It’s such an interesting way to get to the kernel of what motivates someone and makes them tick.


For so long, I thought that I had to pretend to know the answers. Make something up. Blag. Bluster. Avoid. Distract. But it’s actually so freeing to say ‘I don’t know. I made a mistake. I’m human. I’m sorry.’ And one thing I’ve learned from all that stuff I haven’t figured out is that the biggest life lessons come from pain. Why? Because otherwise, it’s wasted. When my marriage ended, I realised fairly fast that I had to take some responsibility and learn some lessons from what went wrong. If I didn’t, not only would I never move forward, but I’d end up making the same mistakes with someone else. If I had to live through something so agonizing, the very least I wanted to come of it with was a bit of wisdom.


Eastern philosophy has it that humans are trapped in a cycle of Samskaras and Karma. The concept of Karma is somewhat well-known in the West – that our actions sow seeds that will inevitably come back to us in some form at some point. The Samskaras are perhaps less familiar to most of us. This describes the patterns and habits we inherit and cycle through over and over, unconsciously setting ourselves up to repeat the same mistakes, unless we become aware and consciously try to break free of them. Whether you care about the Sanskrit or even the concept itself, there are many different ways that humans come to this conscious awareness and many routes to trying to break free. Some people have counselling. Some meditate and do yoga. Some run marathons. Some have a breakdown. But at some point most of us find ourselves thinking ‘How am I here again?’ or ‘Why can’t I work this out? Why is it so difficult?’


As challenging, depressing and confusing as it is, coming up against a situation that you don’t have the answers to is a gift. Take it and run with it. Explore it. Forgive yourself for fucking up again. Try. Fail. And in the words of Samuel Beckett and then Zadie Smith: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And forgive me Sam and Zadie if I add ‘And apologise. And then grow.’

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