It’s Okay to Leave it Blank

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Friends,

I was with a friend of mine this week who is a lifelong educator.  He was working with his fourth grader on her homework, and his daughter was getting frustrated and nervous that she couldn’t figure out a couple of problems.  His advice to his daughter took me off guard. “It’s okay to leave it blank,” he said. In the retelling his voice oozed with tenderness.  He told me he’d explained to her that she could bring the unfinished work to to her teacher and go over it, so that the teacher could see what she was struggling to master and help her with the concepts.   (How great that he could bank on that kind of school and teacher – a far cry from what I was accustomed to as a child – and still somewhat exceptional in my children’s experience.)

Did his advice to his daughter strike you as it did me – as hugely counter-intuitive and counter-cultural? We’re all – all of us – about answers. And authority figures – in this case a dad (but it could have been a boss or a college prof!) – give answers.  One reason – a dirty truth we hardly tell ourselves – is that authority figures are invested in their players or children’s or staff members looking good; because we are afraid we will look bad when they look bad.

The fixation on “right answers” and that “it’s not okay to leave it blank” generates what Carol Dweck in a fascinating book called Mindset identifies as a “fixed mindset.” In her fascinating view some people think things like athleticism, greatness, intellect, musical ability are fixed.  You have them or you don’t.  And so these people (or maybe I should say “we” because I suspect we’re all at least a little bit this way) must always be proving they have it; you can’t gain it, after all; you have it or you don’t; so the stakes are always high.

Dweck suggests we cultivate a different way, a “flexible mind,” where we see that we’re all in process, capable of getting better, moving up a continuum toward mastery.  And in this flexible mindset, we don’t have to blame – others or ourselves – or get overly defensive; because setbacks, errors, and certainly “leaving it blank” is normal in the process of gaining mastery. Effort, resourcefulness, trying, learning from mistakes are what really help us gain toward excellence.  So, in just such a way, my friend has:

  1. Taken the pressure off his daughter; a missing answer is NOT the end, not a huge judgement on her;
  2. Put the emphasis as it should be on learning – and on learning to learn; the blank does not equal stupidity; it equals a question-mark, an openness, a possibility (The very smartest people I know, still ask a lot of questions; they have left a lot of things blank.)
  3. Modeled for her that he’s not desperate that she “get it” immediately; he’s showing his identity is not caught up in her getting every answer right. Too many kids are carrying their parents’ desperate hopes; it’s enough for them to fight their own battles!
  4. Helped her (and pushed her, perhaps) to be resourceful about getting answers, a key to creating independence.

In the interest of keeping this short, I will not draw all the parallels to work life and leadership.  I’d merely invite you to watch how you respond to wrong answers, mistakes, and whether in your world – for yourself and others – you sometimes say, “it’s okay to leave it blank.”

Lead with your best self,

Dan

9 responses to “It’s Okay to Leave it Blank

  1. Another excellent parent response is: “What a wonderful mistake!”

    Behind those words is a perception that we learn from our mistakes (not our successes)….and you just had a great learning experience.

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  2. I do alot of training and team development. One of the first guidelines I always put out there in the facilitation is that it’s ok for ANYONE to say “I don’t know.” (Including me!) But, I do promise that I’ll work on helping them find the answer or direct them towards the best resource to find it.
    Thank you for another great reminder to me to “practice what you preach.”

  3. Great post by Dan today, and great supporting comments by John and Katie. In support of what all three of them have said, I think there should be a certain wariness of anyone who claims to have all of the answers and makes the world black-and-white. There’s value in cutting some slack to our kids, our co-workers, our political leaders, and ourselves when we’re not sure, because regardless of the stakes, the journey can be more important than arriving at the destination.

  4. If my identity is: “I am an athlete,” then I will fear defeat. I will dread every athletic contest because it holds the possibility of defeat, and winning is inextricably linked to my self-esteem. If my identity is: “I am smart,” then I will fear making a mistake. I will dread a new challenge because it holds the possibility of failure, and success is inextricably linked to my self-esteem. But if I view myself as a person “in process”, a person who is still learning, a person who has value just because I am and not because of what I can do, then I am unafraid of defeat, failure or mistake. They are just opportunities to learn and get myself closer to the person I was meant to be.

  5. Dan,

    What a super article!!!!!!!:) I just read an article in the paper yesterday about not raising bad kids which relates to this article. As a school board member and former substitute teacher this article brings back many memories. I wish all parents could read this article, maybe then more of them would volunteer to help in our schools. I will be going on Amazon.com to buy Carol’s book. I will also be fowarded your article to many school board members.

    Marti

  6. When assignments are longer than overnight math homework, timing enters in. questions asked early in the process can help the supervisor/teacher as much as the worker/student. As a worker, I’ve had to push myself to get into challenging assignments quickly in order to ask questions in a timely fashion–so I can still accomplish something by the deadline. As a supervisor (or college instructor), nothing is more annoying than the folks who wait until the last minute to ask their questions.

  7. This article made me think of a Leo Buscaglia presentation, during which he told the story of a child who’s score on an exam was 99 wrong. Leo said the response he would give the child would be, and speaking with joy in his voice, “Johnny, you got one right!.” Leo said, “Who can deal with 99 wrong?”

    Errors are common. How we deal with them can be common as well. A definition of maturity I like is, “making things better than worse by your response.” There is a point where we must confront people who no matter how helpful or constructive we may try to be, return insults, and even attempt mind games and intimidation. An approach like the one suggested in this article will not succeed with all persons.

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