On Making Mistakes
In my school days I was the painfully reticent kid in the back of the class who paid attention, behaved himself, and made the honor roll every quarter, but would never ever raise his hand or volunteer to speak in front of the other kids. When called upon I would either turn catatonic or talk with a doubt-ridden quiver.
Partly it was natural shyness that paralyzed me. Yet in school theater productions I strutted the stage without fear, happily performing to packed auditoriums. What accounted for my contradictory nature? Simple. While acting in a play, I could rely upon a script. I didn’t have to venture my own thoughts or guesses. Speaking in class, however, I risked saying something silly or giving the wrong answer. In class, I was vulnerable to mistakes — and mistakes are a shameful thing. Or so we’re led to believe.
Ours is a success-or-failure culture. We covet seemingly flawless wins, and avoid at all costs missteps, goofs, or even well-intentioned blunders. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed back in 1841:
If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life.
Success — early, gracefully, and infallibly achieved — is the main idea; God help us if we cannot leap clear over all errors to attain it. We learn these attitudes early: Answer right and go to the front of the class. Ace the test and advance to the top of the grade-sheet. Make no mistakes and excel. But err and you will fail to advance — or fail, period.
Absurd, of course. Human beings cannot learn without making mistakes. We ought to know this, even in youth. The old cliché, Nothing ventured nothing gained, dances in our brains from an early age — yes, but being a cliché it fails to penetrate. And so throughout our lives we must teach and re-teach ourselves that mistakes are natural and even useful — not shameful.
Personally, the realities of adulthood re-teach me this lesson often — as does my writing process, which necessitates engaging mistakes and building successes upon them.
In the wonderful book The Conversations, legendary film editor Walter Murch puts it beautifully:
Truly great lessons can be learned from work that fails, but failure is stamped on the product and there’s a tendency to think everything you did was wrong, and you vow not to go there again. You have to resist this impulse, just as you have to resist the syrupy entanglements of success. These are, almost, religious issues. What the world thinks is success, what it rewards, has sometimes very little to do with the essential content of the work and how it relates to the author and his own development.
Like Emerson, Murch speaks here to our success-or-failure culture, but with different nuance. We tend not to credit the value — indeed the necessity — of the mistake, the attempt, the unprofitable or impractical venture, and consequently we often do not understand the real nature of success when we see it.
In his wonderful book Blue Highways William Least-Heat Moon notes:
The annals of scientific discovery are full of errors that opened new worlds: Bell was working on an apparatus to aid the deaf when he invented the telephone; Edison was tinkering with the telephone when he invented the phonograph. If a man can keep alert and imaginative, an error is a possibility, a chance at something new; to him, wandering and wondering are part of the same process, and he is most mistaken, most in error, whenever he quits exploring.
Thomas Edison faced many a doomed venture, including a scheme to build houses of poured concrete all over America. I recently heard it said, however, that his outlook was always: I never fail, I just find out a thousand ways that something doesn’t work.
My poet Rilke puts it more boldly: “The point of life is to fail at greater and greater things.”
I can’t help feeling Rilke is right. Meditating upon the subject long enough, I begin to see that worthy mistakes — and not easy successes — are in fact what life is all about. What a freeing thought!
The writer Paul Zweig wrote, “Making our wish, we make ourselves. We exist in the time between the wish and its fulfillment.” For today’s post I paraphrase Zweig thusly:
Making our attempt, we make ourselves. We exist in the time between the attempt and the attainment.
So throw off timidity, young person at school, and raise your hand! It’s your mistakes that will lead you to the front of the class. Onward through worthy errors. Fail, grow, live, and keep on venturing.
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