Several years ago, a sociologist studied students in a neurosurgery program to see what qualities separated those who succeeded from those who failed. He found ultimately that two questions in his interviews pointed to the crucial difference. He would ask the students, “Do you ever make mistakes? If so, what is the worst mistake you’ve ever made?” Those who failed the program would inevitably answer that they rarely made mistakes or else would blame their mistakes on factors beyond their control. Those who succeeded in the program not only admitted to many mistakes but also volunteered information on what they would do not to repeat those mistakes in the future.
– Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Pushing the Limits”
Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi has a relevant comment in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
When we reflect on what are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each
page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!” Dogen-zenji said,’ ‘Shoshaku jushaku.” Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.
Admitting your mistakes is being real. Only by living with and learning from your mistakes can you advance your thinking. How can this play out in daily life? I’ve found that meetings I’m in are more productive if I’m willing to contribute thoughts that might be wrong. By offering unfiltered ideas that might be “mistakes,” I have often advanced the discussion toward productive decisions and solutions.
A mistake can be seen, then, as productive exploration.