In praise of getting things wrong and working toward better

“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field” -Niels Bohr

I’ve been reading “In the Plex,” a book about the history of Google by Steven Levy. I highly recommend this book, because as I read it I am increasingly aware of the ways in which Google’s constant presence invisibly shapes our daily lives. Levy makes a point in the book of attributing some of Google’s constant evolution to its obsession with failure. In search terms, isolating failures is relatively easy- if people soon return to the search page, reframe their query, or continue down through lower ranked results their search was a relative failure. Failures are identified and isolated by Google and then obsessed over until the PageRank algorithm can be appropriately tweaked in a way that passes rigorous testing protocols.

In this way, Google is similar to an increasing number of failure- focused initiatives, including some of the engineering based models that have been applied to healthcare and more. These voices are increasingly the source of innovations that are continually shaping and reshaping our future. But the rhetoric of failure and success of its evangelizers can be hard for us to wrap our heads around, as people who naturally fear, avoid and focus on failure in a negative way.

Over the weekend, while I was practicing Yoga I told one of my kids my favorite part of the practice (note: not a good time for chatting). I love that Yoga is a process. One day you will be able to do something that you may or may not be able to do the next day, and vice versa. My practice involves quite a bit of balancing on one foot, and there are days when that balance feels effortless and days when that balance feels impossible. But the effortless days only come because I continue to practice despite the disappointments of my wobblier days. Yoga instructors sometimes talk about the power of intentions and working in ways that align with our intentions. One of my kids pointed out that the wobbly days, as I call them, are exactly the reason why she hates Yoga. She’s believes that she’s no good at it, and because of her assessment she will avoid it. You can probably guess that this conversation is far from over between us.

We see attitudes like these affecting people (including ourselves) every day. Some people theorize that the lower representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields is due to a larger proportion of women than men who doubt their abilities or judge their abilities more harshly. We hear about graduate students who experience what is sometimes called the ‘imposter syndrome.’ I remember some students in my graduate classes who chose not to participate in class for fear they would sound stupid. I’ve heard of medical practitioners who were so worried that they would make another mistake that they were afraid to practice. As a writer, I know that the power of self doubt can cause writers block, but I also know how much easier it is to edit or rewrite.

I would encourage all of you to embrace your failures, your mistakes, your shortcomings, your missteps and your errors and see them as part of a process and not an endpoint. These stumbling points are the key points of growth- the key moments for us to learn and to redirect our actions to better suit our intentions. To err is human, but to learn from our missteps is surely something greater.

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