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  • Madeleine Frey

If you're not making any mistakes, you're making a mistake

Updated: Jun 4

Almost every day, I think about Toni Morrison saying this to her students:

'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’

I’ve lived by this for so long I don’t remember ever not knowing it. I first read Toni Morrison in middle school, and while I can’t say I read this quote then, I know that her writing, her spirit, her values have been instilled in me from a young age.

My approach to leadership has always been to develop others, raise up their voices, create safe spaces for experimenting and testing out new ideas, making mistakes, learning, growing.

I was so shy as a kid. I captained my high school soccer team but I’m not sure why I was selected at that time other than I worked hard and wanted so badly to win. And always believed we could and would win…

It wasn’t until college (Smith, class of ’01) when I felt I really found my voice, captaining my college soccer team for 2.5 years, navigating numerous player issues, coaching dynamics, and ultimately being that person who always believed in everyone around me, who knew we had a shot at winning (or losing) even until the very end and we had to put in our all the entire time.

This weekend is my 20-year (virtual) college reunion, and I’m filled with so many reflections from then, and the last 20 years.

I think so much about all my teammates from all the gymnastics, soccer and ultimate teams I have played on, coached, captained, and owned. I am overwhelmed at how much I have learned from them, and from all those games, tournaments, flights, fights, wins, losses, and heartbreaks.

I think about all my former and current colleagues, peers, and non-profits I have helped with evaluation over the years, with an approach of increasing learning from mistakes, improving, growing.

I think about the many spiritual and self-help books I’ve read, therapists I’ve leaned on, and hours spent on the meditation cushion.

All of it, an effort to GET FREE.

I’m not free yet, but I’m confident I am as free as I can possibly be right now in this moment. I’m turning toward the hard stuff, I’m moving forward, I’m using my power, I’m wielding it in ways I never have before.

We are in this moment, this inflection point in history. How long will this moment last? Another year? Another 5 at most? How long will we be able to use our power like this?

The risk of making mistakes, of heartbreak, is not a good enough reason to pull back. Things feel so harsh right now, it feels impossible to connect, to engage. And yet, we have to start somewhere. It’s not going to be perfect.

I make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes really, REALLY stupid ones. Anyone reading this who knows me, knows I’m not exaggerating.

And yet… how else do we grow?

During one tough ultimate game I was coaching and we were losing, I told one of my star Georgia Tech players - “if you’re not making any mistakes, you’re making a mistake.”

This is not the time to play it safe. We need your mistakes. The world needs your courage. In fact, we can’t win without you. Our shared humanity depends on it.

What are you risking? How are you changing? What are you doing to ensure we make use of this moment we have right now? How are you freeing yourself so you can free others?

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