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Is Progress Made By Making Mistakes?

Tonight I spoke at the Geneva Forum for Social Change on a panel called, “The Power of One: Individual Choices Affecting Environmental Change.” It followed and riffed off of a film which was shown just prior to the panel discussion called, Garbage Warrior, about Mike Reynolds decades long fight to give architecture and building a space to innovate towards more sustainable living. I started my introduction with one of Mike’s quotes from early on in his film…

“Mike Reynolds said that ‘progress is made by making mistakes’. I would say rather that progress is not made by making mistakes, but progress is made by learning from our mistakes (and our successes for that matter.) Learning is not necessarily implicit in making mistakes. People make the same mistakes over and over again. So does society, we see it all around us.

Just two days ago, I filled up my diesel car’s tank with unleaded petrol, from empty, right to the top. And that is not the first time that has happened. How did this happen? I was simply not thinking about my actions or the results, I was not fully present, I was thinking about what I was going to be doing in the future and not what I was doing at that moment.

For the last 19 years I have been working as a learning practitioner within the sustainability community, most recently as the Head of Learning and Leadership with IUCN. From this experience I know that learning takes work; it actually rarely just happens. They say you “Learn Something New Every Day”, and you probably do, but don’t notice it, its passive rather than active learning, and therefore don’t necessarily deeply learn. To deeply learn you need to deliberately close your learning loop, particularly through building reflective practice.

Over the years, I have seen a shifting paradigm in adult learning from more centralised teaching, to facilitated learning which includes an important component on reflection: noticing, naming, capturing, sharing your learning, in order to embed it and make it more accessible for future use (for yourself and others) -so that you can really learn from your mistakes, and successes, and help others learn from yours and their own too. Can we be more present around our choices as consumers, voters, (petrol buyers)? Can we start to more deliberately learn our way towards more sustainable development?

2 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Gillian – I came across this blog by searching for the international academy of the environment – I was an intern there one summer in 1993 and that's where we met. Its great to see you are doing well and still working on environmental issues.
    Nandini Gupta

  2. Layla
    Layla says:

    Great point! Yes, sometimes progress is made after A LOT of mistakes! 🙂

    & Thanks for the link!
    I haven't seen this documentary yet & I would love to!

    I admire Mike for what he does, I am a bit sceptical of tires and plastic bottles since they might possibly leak chemicals in the future, or be scattered around if another tsunami came..

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