I read an interesting blog post recently about mistakes by Shane Parrish of Farnam Street. He comments briefly that mistakes are inevitable, but then reminded me of a far more important lesson: the mistake is only as good as our response to it.
Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. We all get steered off course at some point in our lives. What really counts isn’t that we make a mistakes but the choices that follow those mistakes.
According to Shane Parrish mistakes are potentially useful, depending on the choices we make afterwards. And FM Alexander would agree! So what is a good method for best using our mistakes to move us forward?
Experimentation leads to information
When I work with my students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama I ask them to keep a reflective journal of their experiences during their time with me. I encourage them to follow the example of FM Alexander:
I saw that if ordinary speaking did not cause hoarseness while reciting did, there must be something different between what I did in reciting and what I did in ordinary speaking. If this were so, and I could find out what the difference was, it might help me to get rid of the hoarseness, and at least I could do no harm by making an experiment.
Like FM, I ask them to pick particular areas of playing or studying that they want to improve, and then to construct experiments that will help them work on these areas.
I then have the privilege of reading and marking the reflective journals at the end of the unit. There’s always a massive amount of good in the journals, but also one consistent mistake: the failure to reflect upon their errors and include that learning as part of the design of their next Alexander Technique experiment. And this is what Alexander himself did so well: when, for example, he discovered the three harmful tendencies he exhibited when speaking and reciting, he wanted to know which tendency caused the other two. He examined the feedback from one experiment, compared it to his hypotheses, and then constructed a new experiment based upon it.
As I was unable to answer these questions, all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror.
Mistakes lead to re-examination
But what if you make a mistake? And what if it’s a really bad one – a howler? What do you do then?
FM Alexander had those too. At one particular point during his efforts to solve his vocal problems, he even remarks,
all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.
And that sounds like a fairly big error! And what Alexander did is impressive: he went back to pretty much the beginning of his investigations, and re-examined everything. He conducted “a long consideration of the whole question of the direction of the use of myself.” In doing this he discovered that he’d based all his work on a fairly major assumption which, through his practical experience, he had experimentally proved to be untrue.
The finer points of what Alexander assumed aren’t really important today. What really does matter, though, is that he took the time to learn from his mistakes. And from the way he went about things, we can construct a basic process to follow for our own experiments.
Learning from mistakes: the process
At some point we’ve all learned or used a form of basic scientific method like the one I’ve listed here:
- Observe stuff
- Create a hypothesis about why the observed things are happening, or how to stop them happening
- Create an experiment to test the hypothesis.
- Gain results
For most of us, though, we tend to stop there. What Alexander would probably rather we did is this:
I’m hoping the flowchart makes it a relatively simple process – because it is! But many people are like my College students and don’t bother with it. Why?
I suspect it’s partly that most of us learn from a young age to fear mistakes and desire to bury them. More than that, though, it takes a degree of humility and discipline to follow through and really examine our mistakes. But FM Alexander is a prime example of the kind of success that can be achieved if we just do the work.
So will you?
 Parrish, S., ‘Your Response to Mistakes Defines You’, https://fs.blog/2014/09/mistakes/ , accessed 10 June 2019.
 Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance London, Orion, 1985, p.26.
 ibid., p.27.
 ibid., p.34.
Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net
Flowchart made by Jennifer.