When I was 13, I wrote a short story. I showed it to my mother and she suggested I try to get it published in my school newspaper. I gave the story to the teacher in charge of the newspaper, he read it and handed it back saying, “It’s good – but try rewriting it, and see if you can make it better.”

So I rewrote it – I copied it word for word, in my best handwriting.

He rejected it again. I rewrote it, again, without a single mistake.

He finally said, “It’s still not there. Maybe you should work on something else for a while and come back to it later.”

It was a long time before I understood that when he said, try again, what he meant was, start over from scratch, write the same story, but write it using different words, different sentences. Use fewer exclamation points.

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I told my ten-year-old nephew he wasn’t trying hard enough. He exploded, “So you think I’m lying too! Everyone always thinks I’m not trying hard enough, no one believes me!”

The problem is, he is normally very quick to learn new things, so when he fails and instantly gives up, we accuse him of not trying. The truth is, he isn’t trying, because he doesn’t know what to try next. He’s never learned… he’s never been taught – that try again doesn’t mean: do the same thing again, it means do it differently.  It means – figure out what went wrong, learn from the mistake, and use that knowledge to try something new.

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There is an assumption we make in phrases like: try again, or, you’re not trying hard enough. The assumption is that the person can see the same mistakes we see. But maybe they can’t see the mistakes at all.

What my nephew was saying… what I am saying: I’m not lazy, I’m not giving up, I just don’t know what to do.

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Two years ago I decided to learn how to draw. I started with a horse. I drew it twenty times. Every time I drew the horse, I learned something new. Because I had decided, before I began, to draw the thing twenty times, I gave myself permission to fail nineteen of those times.

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Lesson learned:

Give myself explicit permission to fail.

Find the mistake, learn something new.

Don’t try again, try something else.

And never, ever tell someone they’re not trying hard enough.

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