A long time ago, in the machine shop where I went to college, I asked a veteran machinist if I could borrow a tap, the tool used for cutting screw threads into metal. He said, "sure." But as he began to hand me the tap, he froze in his reach and asked, "have you ever broken one of these?" Trapped between a desire to be honest and the thought that he might not loan his tools to a confessed tap-wrecker, I hesitated, but finally answered that yes, I had broken a tap. He finished his reach and put the tap in my hand. "All right then," he said.

In the weeks that followed, I came to understand something fundamental to his way of thinking: the conviction that failure is essential to growth, that wisdom is, in part, a product of mistakes.

Most of us in the training business readily accept that mistakes are part of growth and learning. The challenge for us is managing mistakes and their results in the context of training.

Right and Wrong For the sake of clarity, I would like to share a term of my own coinage, the mistake path. By this I mean the discourse around a "wrong" answer in which the trainer and the participants consider why an answer is "wrong." For instance, suppose one very rainy day, I ask a roomful of training participants, "is the weather good today?" A hand goes up, I nod toward that hand, and he answers, "yes." Normally, we don't think of rain as good weather, but suppose further that this is Texas, August 1998, where rain couldn't be more welcome. Only with a journey down the mistake path--"That's not the reply I expected, tell me more"--is it possible to understand the context of the answer. The mistake path can be complicated for the same reason I keep putting the word "wrong" in quotation marks: the line between right and wrong is often semantic or subjective.

Pressure to avoid the mistake path in the classroom comes from three principal sources. The first is time pressure. It takes valuable time to follow the mistake path thoroughly, and rarely do we have that luxury. The second is the idea of avoiding focusing on the "wrong" answer, because it may stick as well as the lesson we want to convey. The third is the unpredictable nature of following the mistake path.

The mistake path has value! Build time in to your sessions to follow these discourses. Be ready to follow a mistake path fully. Indeed, you might foster resentment by following a path and abandoning it part way: The respondent with the "wrong" answer and others who would have answered similarly will be distracted by a sense of invalidation if the answer is only partly addressed, then dismissed.

Following an answer to its end usually means bringing the discussion back from the specific to the general. In the example of the rainy day in Texas, a discussion of why normally sufficient rainfall makes a sunny day better than rain would achieve that.

When you fear that following a mistake path will make the "wrong" answer memorable, bear in mind that by following it to its end, you will tend to dissolve its apparent rightness. Also, use physical positioning: Leave the lectern and walk to the side. By leaving your notes, the slide presentation, and the area from which you have been speaking, you quarantine the "wrong" answer by taking the discussion physically away from the main conversation.

Experience will help you to choose which paths to wander. Imagine categories of mistakes that will arise, and plan the mistake paths you might follow. You are likely to run into similar mistake paths in a given program so that your post-course notes provide some predictions for the next time.

It's usually better not to break a tap, especially one you have borrowed. But if you do break one, really understanding why, will save taps in the long run. It's worth pursuing.