During all my years of teaching, I’ve seen a lot. In a single quarter I had a student vomit, another have a stroke, and a third show up for the final with no teeth claiming police brutality. I was teaching as the Twin Towers fell and watched the chaos ensue via the Internet. I’ve even been mooned by an irate teenager who was upset that I wouldn’t let him take the quiz he missed by showing up late. But the image that sticks with me the most from my professorial days was of a mistake. A huge mistake.
It was my first year teaching and I made up for my nerves with bravado and humor. The class was one of those freshman behemoths required for every major, the kind of filter class that students hate taking and teachers hate teaching. Four days a week, I lectured from a podium in front of a huge screen dropped from the ceiling. The set-up was all modern and technical so whatever I had on my computer screen displayed on the screen. And thus my downfall began.
I had the habit of breaking up the class with humorous video clips I found on the Internet. I was not supposed to do this. In fact, I was strictly instructed to stick to the manual and its set of boring exercises. But like I said, I was nervous and eager to be liked and very, very young so I did it anyhow. Until one day I mistyped the URL of the site I was looking for. I meant to have a funny show up but instead up popped a hardcore porn site, complete with all the naughty pop-up windows that those sites spawn.
There was an audible gasp in the audience and in the seconds it took for the mistake to travel to my brain, my body decided to act. Causing human resource directors everywhere to shudder in horror, I threw myself in front of the screen trying to block the image with my body. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you can imagine, this does not work with a projector and a screen of megaplex proportions. Instead it looked as if I had thrown myself into the middle of a terribly lewd act. And for good measure, a very disturbing phrase was scrolling across the bottom of the screen – right across my stomach.
The students, being college kids, were wildly entertained until I managed to turn the projector off and it might have ended there. Except that somehow word got back to the dean and I was called in for an interview. And here’s where it gets particularly cringe worthy. After having to describe in detail what exactly the picture was showing on the site to a man old enough to be my grandfather, I had to explain to him how it happened. Instead of simply admitting my mistake and asking for forgiveness, I tried to snow him. I babbled on about black widow sites and viruses and domain name hijacking and rerouting and any other technical details I could think of until at last I ran out of steam.
Sitting back and staring at me thoughtfully, he eventually said quietly, “They’ll never hate you for making mistakes. Everyone does that. But they’ll never respect you if you can’t admit to those mistakes.” I was too stunned to speak. “Next time ask for help.”
That is a lesson I took to heart. In every class I taught after that point, I would tell the class right at the beginning that I wasn’t perfect and that most likely there was someone present who knew more than I did. (Which really came in handy the day I started a computer on fire. Seriously.) That they should tell me when I am wrong and accept when I did the same for them. That nobody should be afraid of making mistakes, the only important thing was to try.
It is a lesson that translates well to health and fitness. I see a lot of people avoiding healthy activities out of fear of making mistakes. If you exercise in a gym setting then that fear is multiplied by the very public nature of the environment. For instance, a few months back I saw a woman pick up a resistance band. After glancing around a few times, she finally stepped on it and pulled up on the handles, just like she’d seen a personal trainer do with a client. Unfortunately she didn’t have a good lock on the band and it whipped out from under her feet and smacked her across the face. I had to fake a coughing fit for a good five minutes to keep from laughing until I fell off my treadmill, it was that funny. It was certainly embarrassing. So what did the woman do? Dropping the handles, she stepped over the band and walked away as if nothing had happened. But her beet-red face betrayed her. I wanted to run after her and tell her that it’s okay, I’ve totally snapped myself with the resistance band and then show her how to put it under the groove in your shoe so it can’t come loose but she was gone, hopefully not to hide under a rock. If she had stuck around long enough I would have told her how I actually put a hole in my super tight spandex pants when I snapped myself on the butt with a jump rope while trying to show off during boot camp.
For me, making mistakes is about being teachable. It’s about admitting that I don’t have all the answers and that I have a lot to learn from other people. I’ve learned that I will never be perfect at anything the first time I try it. Chances are, I’ll never be perfect at it period. I’ve also learned that nobody likes a perfect person anyhow. People are drawn to those who can make mistakes and learn from them. And hey, if you don’t believe me, take it from Jamie Kennedy: