I first learned to knit while living in Dublin, Ireland the fall after my mother died. I was 20 years old and felt profoundly alone in the world for the first time. Having suffered a dance-related injury to the point I couldn’t walk, and stuck living with my elderly Auntie Peggy and the few books she kept on hand, I was bored out of my mind. To pass the hours and to get to know each other, she suggested we knit. It sounded like a terrible idea to me – I have not the smallest bit of patience and was sure I’d fail miserably at the project. But stranded as I was in a foreign country with only two television stations and a raft of religious books to distract me, I became willing as only those who have no other options become willing.

Auntie Peggy, like both my parents, like just about everyone from their generation, seemed to believe in very clear-cut lines. There were the right things in life – Catholicism, married relations that produced children, men leading the way and women bringing up the rear. And then there were the wrong things in life – Protestantism, young people “living in sin,” women working outside the home after children were born, single mothers. Not that they would have lacked compassion for those who found themselves inexplicably on the wrong side of this divide, but it was hoped that those who hewed to a properly focused path would be able to stay on the side of right.

I see now, nearly 30 years later, that it was with this same ethos that Auntie Peggy taught me to knit. There is a right way to knit (English/Irish style, throwing the yarn yet always keeping the right hand on the needle), and a wrong way (anything that deviates from the aforementioned right way). When I was learning, I made mistakes.

Mistakes, I quickly learned, were not allowed.

“Can’t you see that side was meant for knit, not purl,” she’d ask, derision thick in her voice. I was so afraid of her kind-hearted but nonetheless scathing disapproval that I paid extra-close attention. Still, even with the most painstaking concentration I could muster, we ended up tearing out and re-doing more patches of my messed-up knitting than I care to think about, Auntie Peggy grumbling the whole while about how avoidable my mistakes where.

It reminded me of doing writing exercises on that parchment-thin ale-colored paper in Kindergarten with the big thick lines, the dotted line in the middle to reign in exuberant young fingers. Try as I like to make perfect letters, to spell out my infuriatingly long name in stately looking letters, I could never do it. So I’d erase and start again. And then again. Until the paper eventually gave way beneath the assault of my erasures, leaving only holes and shredded bits of newsprint to show for my efforts.

That said, Auntie Peggy’s teaching technique obviously worked. Before I moved home to Los Angeles from Dublin, I had completed three sweaters and was well on my way to discovering for myself the meditative, creative and spiritual benefits of knitting.

In the years that followed, I taught countless people to knit – friends of friends, people who bid on knitting lessons at charity auctions, friends’ kids, you name it. Every time I did, I suffered silently. To sit and watch another person make mistakes is downright painful. Usually, when things got bad enough, I’d have no choice but to rip the needles and yarn from the learner’s hands so I could immediately correct the errors made; leaving a mistake in the work was unthinkable. It’s little surprise, then, to reflect on those early efforts and realize that no one I taught back then continued to knit. I beat any possible joy out of the experience with my insistence that it be done right.

Thankfully, during this time I was raising my children and starting to learn a thing or two about the benefits of mistakes and failure. Watching my children learn to walk, I had to restrain myself from swooping in and picking them up before they fell. Part of learning to walk involves falling, followed by the important part — learning to get up and try again. In grade school, when they did their homework, I tried not to insist they do it perfectly; I tried to embrace the more Zen-like approach that learning is all about the journey not the destination. Still, it took everything inside me to allow them, once in a great while, to turn in a homework paper on which I knew an error existed. Most of the time I couldn’t stand it. I’d point out the error and help them correct it, thinking I was doing a good deed. Surely, they were learning important lessons in accuracy.

Really, what they were learning was two-fold: 1) That I didn’t think they were smart enough or capable enough to learn from their errors; and 2) That my need to be seen as a perfect mother outweighed their need to learn.

A friend, Cathy, contacted me to help her plan a baby shower for a friend of hers. Could I teach a group of women to knit all at once, getting them far enough along that each could produce a 4-inch-by-4-inch knitted square, which Cathy would then piece together into a baby blanket?

“Instead of getting a party favor, the women who attend will not only get a knitting lesson but a skein of yarn and a pair of needles to keep them going, “ she enthused, certain this was a great idea.

I worried about how the event would unfold: teaching one person to knit meant I could snatch the yarn and needles from the learner’s hands in time to prevent errors, but what do you do when there are a score of people learning all at once? To make sure I’d have an extra set of knowing hands that day, I first taught Cathy to knit. We sat in my living room, side by side on the couch, as I taught her the rhyme I’d learned at the Waldorf School where they teach 2nd graders to knit as part of the curriculum.

In through the front door
run around the back
peeping through the window
off jumps jack.

Whenever Cathy wound the yarn in the wrong direction, or tried to peep through the window going the wrong way, I did what I’d always done: attempt to yank the yarn and needles from her to correct the error as quickly as possible. But Cathy, unlike the other people I’d taught over the years, would not be cowed by my insistence. Rather than relinquishing the knitting implements to my desperate grasping, as everyone else had always done — as I had meekly done with Aunt Peggy — she simply elbowed me away.

“I see your challenge with this experience will be learning how to let other people make their own mistakes,” she said very matter of factly, as if such a thing were not only possible but to be encouraged.

Of course I shouldn’t let people make their own mistakes, my insides cried. What would be the point in that? If I can save them from making an error, isn’t that the wisest course?

“You won’t be able to work with each of the baby shower guests one-on-one,” she pointed out. “You’ll have to explain the process well enough that if people make mistakes we can just let it be. Unless the faults will ruin the blanket, we’ll live with them.”

Live with the mistakes? What a terrible idea! If I had to, I’d re-knit every one of the 4-inch-by-4-inch squares myself. How would the edges line up if they weren’t done properly? How would this be a nice looking blanket by the time we were finished?

As directed by Cathy I purchased 20 pairs of size 8 knitting needles and 20 skeins of forgiving yarn. To make the event go as smoothly as possible, I cast on the 12 required stitches on all 20 sets of needles. Everything was ready to be placed in the guests’ hands at the party.

The day arrived and as I’d been dreaming for nights, the experience of teaching that many people to knit at the same time, especially when they were all feeling social and wanting to chat with each other, was like herding cats. Some paid attention to my demonstration. Others were busy sharing pictures of their young children with each other. I tried to stay calm, teaching them the little rhyme, but I heard the shrillness creeping into my voice. If they didn’t learn to do this properly, it would be my fault. All that money spent on needles and yarn, wasted. Eventually, the knitting started to happen. A few of the women already knew how and offered assistance to the others at their little tables. Cathy and I floated from table to table, helping, repeating the rhyme (‘in through the front door, run around the back,” and intervening when needed. “The stitch is still on the first needle. Remember ‘off jumps Jack?’ Jack’s still stuck here. You have to help him jump off.”) By the time the baby shower ended, I’d sweated through my silk dress and had lost my voice. We were left with a pile of what should have been 4-inch-by-4-inch squares. They weren’t quite that. Some were good-looking, but most looked like you’d expect from people just learning: misshapen, dropped stitches, extra stitches, uneven stitches. I was certain the adventure was a big fat failure and that Cathy was sorry she’d ever signed me on for it.

Eventually, she was able to piece together those semi-squares and add a crochet boarder that made up for all the funny shapes. By the time the blanket was done, it looked like what it was: a homemade gift of love put together by 20 disparate women showing their support of a new mother. It didn’t look like it belonged in the pages of Pottery Barn, which is what I would have wanted. More like the potholders my kids made for Mother’s Day when they were in first grade – messy, full of mistakes and equally full of love.

Cathy’s words, though, didn’t leave me. “I can see your challenge will be letting other people make their own mistakes. “ I took this thought to heart. Up until that point, I had seen my children not so much as their own selves, but as reflections of me. If they did well in school, it made me look good. If they received praise for their intelligence or hard work or talent, I soaked up the referred glory. But in how many ways was I cheating them from being fully themselves when I insisted they be “right” all the time so that I looked good?

Around this time I was working on my first book about knitting and interviewed a woman who made fine art sculptures of food – ham dinners, snack cakes, sushi – by knitting them. Only she wasn’t a very good knitter, couldn’t actually do the knit or purl stitch, kept conflating them with crochet stitches. Instead of getting mad at herself or tossing the needles and yarn aside in a huff, she embraced what she was doing. One day, while laid up in bed after having her wisdom teeth removed, she tried to knit mittens. She couldn’t get the hand part of the mittens right to save her life but she totally nailed the thumbs. She had so much fun knitting little stand-alone thumbs that she simply kept making them. Under the effects of the painkillers, she looked at her growing pile of thumbs and saw something new. A thumb is just about the right size as the little bed of rice upon which sushi is constructed. She no longer had a pile of thumbs, she told herself, but little sushi beds in different colors. And voila, her first knitted food sculpture began to take shape.

I was talking with a friend the other day about the idea of a mindset and he told me of a theory he’d been reading about: the idea of a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset. With a fixed mindset, a person believes himself to be born with certain skills and abilities – like the cards a dealer gives out in poker. This is your hand; you’ll have to make the best of it. In childhood, this person may have received praise for being smart or funny or good-looking or any other positive attribute that may have been innate. He will spend the rest of his life trying to play the same cards, hoping that they’ll be enough to get him the joys he wants in life. The person with the growth mindset, though, sees things differently. She may know she has certain natural abilities but is aware she can learn many other things as well by sheer effort. (I remember my friend Nancy, who attended to medical school as a single mother of four, telling me her definition of intelligence: not necessarily being smart, but being able to learn what you need to know.) The person with the growth mindset, as a child, was mostly likely praised for her effort, for trying new things, for making attempts and failing, only learning to fail better the next time. This person learns to engage a challenge, doesn’t rely solely on innate skills but wants to branch out and learn new things, gain new skills. This person is likely to grow up feeling that she can become competent at pretty much anything she sets her mind to, so long as she’s willing to put in the effort. This is the benefit of making mistakes: realizing you not only can recover from them, but you can thrive as a result of what you learn about yourself as you recover.

I’d like to say I learned this lesson early enough to have had a positive influence on my three children, that I let them make mistakes and praised them for their fearlessness, that I no longer looked to them to provide me with referred glory. Alas, no. But I did learn enough about the nature of mistakes while they were growing that I think some of these ideas got through.

I look at my own career. As a writer, I have created countless failed efforts. I have had to do this over and over again in order to find the right way to tell the story. I recently finished a first novel, nearly 12 years after I began it. It’s not that it took me 12 years to write the 280 pages that comprise the book. It’s that I had to write the story every possible way over the course of what was probably 2,000 pages spread out over more than a decade to discover the way that best expressed what I was trying to say. I was tempted to write the words “the wrong way” and “the right way” in that last sentence, so strong is this pattern of thought. I have to physically stop myself and remind myself of some simple truths: In everything I do in life, there isn’t a right way. There are choices and there are consequences. What appears to be “right” for someone else may not, in fact, be right for me.

This lesson has finally come through in my parenting. It’s painful to sit back and watch my children, now nearly fully grown adults, make mistakes. I don’t mean to suggest a moral tone with the word “mistake” or to imply that just because it’s a choice I wouldn’t make, I necessarily think their choices are therefore “mistakes.” There is a difference, I realize, between making an error (2+2=5) and making a judgment on someone else’s choice. But hoping my son will not go so fast while riding my motorcycle on a windy mountain highway as to crash it, I believe, is hoping he not make an error in judgment fueled, most likely, by his youth and gender. (Though the bike was totaled, my son, thank God, was fine.) But they have to learn their own path. How many times have I wanted to jump in and save them from the error of their ways? If I know better, don’t I owe it to them to save them that heartache? But I can no more do that than my parents could save me from making my own mistakes.

When I look back on my younger years, it’s often the mistakes and how I recovered from them that taught me the important lessons. Getting pregnant at 16 in high school. Becoming an alcoholic/drug addict as a young adult. Later, making poor financial decisions that led to losing a house to foreclosure. These have been the touchstones in my life. Events I wouldn’t wish on my fiercest enemies, and yet…. Learning that I had a kind of resilience in me that I didn’t know was there? That’s the greatest gift possible, and what turned me into a person with a growth mindset though everything in my history should have dictated a fixed one.

If I had one wish to impart on my children, I think it would be that: that they discover their own resilience, their own ability to recover from the mistakes they make directly, as well as from the messes that occur when life is cruel and unfair. That they have a growth mindset. That their knitting, like learning to write their names, like learning to crawl and walk, and drive a car and attend college and get a job – that all of life becomes a place to learn, and that they embrace the fact that errors are not the end of the world.

Looking back on that baby shower experience, I see that sharing an afternoon of love with a group of women who were learning to knit and finding joy was more important than producing a Pottery Barn blanket. You can buy one of those for a small stack of bills. But it’s in knowing that you can build a life that uniquely fits, that you can stumble, make uninformed choices and still learn and grow from the experience that matters. The lessons I first learned from knitting keep showing me this truth: that a kind of radical acceptance of errors and an appreciation for our human capacity for resiliency – that’s what’s truly precious. And there’s no mistake about it.


This piece appears in Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood.  Copyright 2013. W.W. Norton and Co.  All rights reserved.

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Currently writing Look, Lean, Roll, a book about women, motorcycles, risk-taking and authenticity, BERNADETTE MURPHY has published three books of narrative nonfiction and teaches creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program.

3 responses to “Failing Better”

  1. Joe McCarthy says:

    As a recovering perfectionist descended from a long line of perfectionists (and quite possibly an inadvertent ancestor of another generation), I can relate to the challenges of making mistakes – and seeing mistakes in others – in parenting, writing and many other realms. This article resonates on many different levels.

    I’m grateful to the author for being so open and vulnerable in sharing hard-wrought wisdom.

  2. Gwen Acres says:

    I have it bad….I want to write and express how deeply I appreciate your article both as a novice knitter, a guilty perfectionist and a “failer”. I will keep my praise brief as I fear not expressing myself well enough. 🙂 Thank you for mixing laughter with my tears.

  3. Lovely piece. Unfolds and wraps around the reader like a handknit scarf. And no dropped stitches.

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