I know a performance artist, a contemplative juggler who’s an expert at making mistakes. One of the extraordinary things he does is teach toddlers and blind people(!) to juggle. Juggling offers a wonderful, embodied metaphor for the content of many of our lives. You can see him in action by clicking on this video link: Wooshclang! (Do it, you’ll experience a real treat!). In the process of learning to juggle, a learner must inevitably drop the ball. What Thomas Arthur likes to call such learning experiences are … “dropportunities.” Dropportunities invariably become a necessary part of learning, especially when there is no humiliation involved. You drop a ball, you pick it up and simply begin tossing it again. No harm, no foul.

Shame versus Humiliation

jugglingWhen my daughter Amanda was in middle school, I once offered her $10 to deliberately get a single word wrong on a spelling test. She wouldn’t do it. The peer pressure and the potential for subsequent humiliation stressed her too much. Though we often interchange or confuse the two, humiliation is different than shame. Shame is a developmental stage that all of us experience in the course of our natural neurological unfolding. According to UCLA neuro-psychiatrist, Allan Shore, the experience of shame results simply from us hearing the word “No” repeated over and over, as parents and other caregivers attempt to provide guidance, socialize us and keep us safe. Humiliation, however, shows up neurologically as a very different animal. People who receive humiliating and esteem-diminishing responses when they make mistakes will rarely persist in the discipline and practice required for learning. You can’t be publicly humiliated and easily learn to be curious and exploratory at the same time – the flood of cortisol and adrenaline that humiliation triggers inhibits the brain from making the necessary connections required for long-term learning. Humiliation instead, often teaches us to fear making mistakes. To avoid that feeling, many of us simply avoid taking on new things that might even remotely repeat our early humiliation experiences. That, in itself, is a great shame.

The Fearless Edu-Punk Model

Based upon the large number of graduate students I encounter who are desperately afraid of taking risks or making “mistakes,” – presumably having been negatively conditioned by earlier experiences – this is actually a significant problem. Especially, when a growing number of Edu-punks are in the process of attempting to do away with the requirement to enroll in college altogether, along with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt that result. Without internal permission to NOT attend college, we’re really literally stuck spending four years acquiring debt for a degree that may or may not one day result in a good job.

whateverRunning parallel with the discomfort that making mistakes causes, is the inability for many of today’s kids to emotionally engage and effectively self-regulate in the face of conflict. The “Whatever Generation” turn out to be consummate conflict-avoiders. At the same time, increasing research evidence suggests that engaging in, and successfully resolving conflict works to powerfully enhance neural growth and integration. This makes sense, since the most powerful learning is emotional learning.

Making History with Necessary Mischief

It’s not an accident that Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s observation that, “Compliant women seldom make history,” Victoria Castle’s Necessary Mischief and Ann Minch’s “open letter” on the Huffington Post to Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, have all gone viral in this age of the internet. Ulrich woke up one morning to find her simple statement of truth taken up by the women’s movement, while Castle is convinced that engaging in necessary mischief brings greater vitality, originality, resilience, and resourcefulness into a weary world.” Which is apparently true for Minch as well, who decided she’s not going to sit still for usurious 30% interest rates, and has taken the first step in leading a debtor’s revolt. These women stopped caring about how they might look to others. They show up as truth-tellers willing to express something essential that has been lost, something yearning to be reclaimed – the candid truth of their experience. Their work (and ours?) is to creatively find ways to respond to the inevitable Dropportunities that life presents.

How about you? What increasingly larger balls are you willing to  risk  dropping? Who can you get to help you manage that risk?