My Best Mistake by Fiona Weir, Participation Strategy Lead

Fiona Weir has spent 27 years living and working in semi-rural West Yorkshire: raising children; being actively involved in community groups and campaigns; working in local government, education and the voluntary sectors; and over the past few years, learning to live with psoriatic arthritis and physical disability. This summer, she joined NHS England as participation strategy lead.

 

I promised to write this blog weeks ago, but it has taken me a while to find my way to what I want to say. At first, I struggled to think of any mistakes that have led me to interesting learning. And that gave me some angst about whether I was less of a reflective practitioner than I thought: perhaps, I worried for a while, I am shockingly lacking in self-awareness!

So I ran through a mental check-list of mistakes I could remember, and was oddly reassured to find plenty. Messing up my ‘O’ levels because my lively social life was more fun. Applying to do law at university. Staying in my first job, even though I was miserable working somewhere the stony-faced manager told everyone “emotions do not belong in the workplace”. One or two others where I caused hurt to someone close to me, which are too personal to tell you about here; in any case, I think mistakes that harmed or hurt other people are my ‘worst’ mistakes not my ‘best’ ones.

Some mistakes are easy to identify, because you can see a situation you don’t like. But what about the mistakes that creep up on us? Situations that start well, or that are more complex or ambiguous, so we don’t realise we are making mistakes until we’re stuck in a tangled mess?! Those are probably the mistakes we learn most from, if we reflect, so I’ll tell you about one of these…

My mistake

Around 2010, I set up a Facebook group, initially just for friends, to chat and share information about what was going on in our neighbourhood. I gave it a dreadful, corny, ‘in-joke’ type name. (I won’t say what, because it would identify the place, but it was inspired by The League of Gentlemen, if that means anything to you). My friends and I found the group useful and fun; then friends invited friends and the membership quickly grew from about 30 people to several hundred. I was simultaneously pleased to have started something popular, and a bit annoyed that ‘my’ cosy little friendship group had turned into something bigger. My irritation grew when more people complained about the jokey name, and started to argue about it. I wanted the group to be friendly, so I tried to change it. But (it turns out) name changes are impossible on Facebook once groups reach that size. Then a huge row blew up between people who thought the name was funny and people who thought it was offensive, and some people joined the group just to join the fight. I felt awful, and some of the angriest people made personal attacks against myself and the other group administrators. A vocal minority were generally horrible to everyone. Soon, I was feeling very negative about the whole idea of ‘community’. I stepped down from the group, hurt.

What I learned quite soon

Looked at one way, I made a series of mistakes: setting up a Facebook group before I really knew what I was doing; choosing the ‘in-joke’ name of the group; not realising it might offend some people and couldn’t be changed; extending group membership beyond my circle of friends – or alternatively, feeling that a group which was useful and wanted by lots of people should somehow belong only to ‘us’; tolerating nastiness from some people because I felt guilty; quitting something I cared about because I was upset… But on the other hand, I learned loads, especially about conflict. Someone will always want an argument; community groups don’t need everyone to agree and can survive significant conflict; people who haven’t had a voice before can be quite angry when they first get one; and anger usually isn’t personal even when it feels like it. Importantly, I also learned that good ideas and action in communities can gain their own momentum, and don’t necessarily need a leader – even me! My mistakes made me ‘let go’ and created space for others to get more involved.

One important realisation was that there was a lot to be proud of, and that I had played an important part in developing something good and enduring. By the time I stepped down, membership had grown to almost 2,000. Alongside the quarrelling, people were using the group to meet each other, discuss stuff, promote local events, find or recommend tradespeople, make complaints, run campaigns, and support each other in crisis – including when the neighbourhood was snowed-in and a couple of times when families were hit by tragedy. Today (still with the same corny name), it has more than 6,500 members and is thriving. Several other nearby neighbourhoods have started similar groups.

What it took longer to learn

Often, to put it bluntly, we learn more easily from other people’s mistakes than from our own. I think this is because most of us are socialised from childhood to try to avoid mistakes, and we’re brought up to feel embarrassed or ashamed of making them. But it doesn’t need to be that way – and it isn’t universally. I remember hearing anecdotes (maybe apocryphal) about maths lessons in Japanese and Chinese schools. Apparently, the teacher calls students up to the board to solve equations in front of the whole class. If someone gets the maths problem right, the teacher smiles politely and sends the student to sit back down. But if the student gets it wrong, the teacher invites others in the class to have a go too; everyone talks about it and gets more time to think; and when someone eventually solves it, everyone applauds and thanks the student who got the question wrong – not the one who got it right – for giving everyone a better opportunity to learn.

Even if this is a myth, there is important insight here. Looked at this way, if people are focused on collaboration rather than personal achievement, then mistakes offer important and useful insight, and can be positive too. We need to be braver about admitting them, because they are inevitable when we are trying to do difficult things. They need to be examined not ignored or covered up. And then, mistakes can help us improve services and build stronger communities.

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