We all understand the concept of learning from our mistakes. I have found this to be particularly useful as I get more deeply involved in genealogical research.
Like everyone else, I made a lot of mistakes when I started doing genealogy research:
- I accepted hints without verifying them. It was great fun. It left me with a lot of work to do when I realized my errors.
- What I learned from this mistake: it was okay. I see a lot of advice from experienced genealogists to newbies along the lines of “always verify your sources before you do anything else” and I think that if I had done this, it wouldn’t have been as much fun. And if it wasn’t fun, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it. The wild ride of tracing my ancestors back to the Mayflower or Jamestown or William the Conqueror or Charlemagne was exhilarating. And so what if I had to undo it? I’m retired. I have time. The feeling of that thrill stuck with me and motivated me through the dull times.
- I didn’t maintain a research log. That was boring. It was a lot more fun to click my way down a rabbit hole, not knowing how I got there and thus not knowing how to get back.
- What I learned from this mistake: it was also okay. Once again, I was having fun while I was learning better ways of doing things. I figured out how to dig my way out of rabbit holes because I was in a rabbit hole. That’s motivating. I’m still not very good at keeping research logs, but I forgive myself for that. I’m not going to get fired for doing it wrong – I’m retired.
- I didn’t have very clear research goals at first. I didn’t know that I needed a research goal. I was just clicking away, building my tree, not sure where I was going.
- What I learned from this mistake: it was also okay. Are you beginning to see a theme here? Once I had a shaky “wiring diagram” in place – births, marriages, and deaths for a significant number of generations, I began to think about what I wanted to do with this information. I began to create what teachers call SMART objectives – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. I needed some raw data before I could begin to figure out meaningful goals.
- I hesitated to put my research and writing “out there” for all to see when I knew there were errors in it. But now my tree is public and I also write a blog that is publicly available. That means people can see my mistakes. I try to identify any uncertainty I have about my information so that people don’t just copy it, errors and all. I risked negative and even hostile responses.
- What I learned from this mistake: it was also okay. I realized that almost no one was paying me anywhere near enough attention to point out when I was wrong. When someone corrected me, it was almost always done kindly. I ignored the few jerks who apparently had decided that their main function in life was to take me down a peg or two. I have time – like I said, I’m retired – but I don’t choose to spend my time engaging with idiots.
- I frequently failed at using technology that was new to me. I have misused – sometimes spectacularly – Chrome extensions, excel spreadsheets, photo editing software, Microsoft Word hacks, Internet search techniques, genealogy websites, and self-publishing sites. You name it, I have screwed it up in some fashion.
- What I learned from these mistakes: you know the answer by now – it was okay. I didn’t break the Internet. If I lost information, I found new ways of retrieving it. I learned the value of saving and backing up my research and writing. Sometimes the lessons were costly – not often in money but frequently in time. See above – I’m retired, I have time.
I could go on but I won’t. The bottom line is that the mistakes I make teach me a lot. I learned the value of verifying hints because I got a little tired of rabbit holes. I learned the value of a research log (well, kinda learned it) when I found myself revisiting sites I had already researched. I learned the value of research goals when I found myself wandering aimlessly around without goals. I learned the value of making my research and writing public when I began to receive kudos along with gentle corrections. I learned the value of using new technology when I realized that using it made my research and writing better and easier.
All in all, I recommend mistakes. Fear of them is paralyzing. Many philosophers have been credited with a sentiment along the lines of “the best is the enemy of good enough.” We’re never very good at something when we do it for the first time. If we decide against doing something because we fear failure, we won’t do anything.
Go for it.