It’s called tinking, the word ‘knit’ spelled backwards and it means the unknitting of a sweater or hat after you’ve made a mistake. Slowly, stitch by stitch you work your way backwards, undoing the rows of live stitches by reawakening the row beneath. For new and experienced knitters, tinking is an essential skill that can take years and countless screw ups to acquire. Without it, you will forever be at the mercy of your last mistake, unable to fix it without ripping out the entire project or stuck with it and failing to learn anything.
Tinking is a great metaphor for life. When we are young, just starting out, we don’t realize that mistakes are part of the process, that they are not only common but necessary aspects of learning and becoming ‘experienced.’ I would argue that mistakes are what make us ‘experienced’ and without them we cannot develop and change.
But like a new knitter facing the first dropped stitch or miscounted row, going backwards seems like so much failure, like wasted time doubled – the time spent making the original row and now the time spent unknitting it. This can be especially frustrating when you are working on a project with a deadline or when you have only limited time to spend on your favorite hobby due to work, family or life commitments.
Reframing the experience can help with the frustration, can balm the sting of failure. It can also encourage you to try again. Carol Dweck has popularized this notion of reframing through her scholarship on growth vs fixed mindsets. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she writes: “In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail – or if you’re not the best – it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they are doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, the search was deeply meaningful.”
Failure, in other words, is actually valuable. It’s a necessary and even a desired outcome. It tells us what we don’t want, what went wrong, what won’t work and helps to narrow the field and improve our efficiency in achieving success.
I’m teaching my girls to ‘tink’. I think teaching children to recognize and utilize the lessons of failure needs to be an integral part of the education process. Utilizing techniques from non- traditional education like hands on learning, or child-led project-based learning, I give them every opportunity I can to fail.
Some folks might think I’m crazy and maybe I’m going about it all wrong. But it seems that giving kids a chance to learn in a non-graded environment where exploration and experimentation are par t of the process is a necessary antidote to fear of failure.
Babies, for instance, have no fear of failure. Everything they do is exploration and experimentation. When they fail at something (for instance, this whine won’t bring mom running, let’s take it up a notch to a siren wail and see what she does), they just try a different way. They fail and fail and fail again and that’s how they learn to roll over, crawl, cruise, walk, eat with their hands and so on.
But somewhere in early childhood, we adults begin to discourage children from failing. We instill the idea that success is what matters, that achievement is the only goal and that failure is something to be ashamed of. Not all of us do this or even do it on purpose. Rather than focusing on their effort or the process, we clap or say ‘good job’ when they achieve.
I still do this. Proudly yelling out ‘Good job’ when one of my girls lands a cartwheel after weeks of her trying or when the other bakes cookies that turn out edible. And it’s important and valuable to acknowledge achievement. I can see how happy and rewarded they feel when they nail something they’ve worked hard to achieve.
But I also routinely remind myself about tinking. It took me two years to teach myself to knit and I still regularly drop stitches or forget which row I’m on. Mastery and confidence, however, don’t come from being too scared to fail. So, I show the girls when I make a mistake and they laugh and tease me about ‘tinking too much’… Now that’s success as far as I’m concerned.