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