A great deal of people who look for psychiatric help do it over the fear of making mistakes, or because they can’t help themselves but to repeat the same ones over and over again. And yet, it’s by making mistakes that we learn the most. It’s through error that solutions are found. And that new dimensions of life are discovered.
Paula Rocha has been teaching music history for the last 16 years. Periodically, she also writes notes for music flyers. Which are delivered on the deadline. When the alarm goes off. When there’s no longer time for revision. When the flyers might not reach the printer in time for the show. And yet, the notes were ready. The delivering was what got delayed: “Whenever I write a text, I can’t bear to look at it, I am embarrassed by what I wrote. You can never settle for how average you actually are”, she states, as if talking to her own reflection on a mirror. Apart from being a professor at the specialized artistic education branch in Portugal, and a doctorate in musical sciences, she carries an even bigger weight over her shoulders: she has been writing a thesis for 20 years. “Tomorrow I’m working on my thesis the entire day”, she declares. “I don’t have time for this now, I have a thesis to write”, she says, typically when she gets into an argument. Holidays, weekends, all her free time, she reserves it for writing a new article, taking notes on a book she just added to her bibliography, or for scribbling down a few more pages. Of course, she doesn’t always write on her days off work, but when she doesn’t, the thesis still lurks in the background. It makes its presence known. It imposes itself. Watching her. Judging her. The paper is already 600 pages verbosely edited, rewritten and revised. “It’s not quite possible to cover everything, but there are always one or two articles that can enrichen it, and as time goes by, more articles about the subject come out… research implies the never-ending quest for something else to add.”
Paula has given herself, and everyone else she has shared this secret with, every justification on the book: “You envision this thing so perfectly it becomes impossible to execute. You put it off until there’s no possibility to even correct you mistakes, because there’s nothing there that isn’t wrong.” To live with the expectation that she has imposed on herself has become a self-inflicted kind of torture: “The thesis is only the most evident, painful part of it all. Everything else is a monumental failure in the name of perfection.” Who’s demanding this level of excellency? “Often, you’re writing and picturing the face of the person reading those words, the questions the jury could pose, the total scrutiny you’d go through. There are many comparisons. So much has been done, and done so well, that the possibility of you doing worse is absolute.” She acknowledges however, that the problem doesn’t reside in the comparison to others. Paula Rocha has even entertained the hypothesis of never finishing the thesis: “Why would you put yourself up for that test?” In order to get rid of the state of guilt, she has even imagined the possibility of accepting herself as a looser. The fear she feels, she admits, is the one familiar to those who “reject the possibility of error”. As a teacher, she must help those students on whom she sees and detects these same issues. She employs many strategies to get them to finish their work. She found them all in herself: “Even if you fail, you’ll see it doesn’t even hurt that much” is a phrase that works well with her pupils. It just doesn’t work with her. “If I wasn’t built tough, I would have given up already. But the set-back is unforgivable.”
To live with the paralyzing fear of error, or of repeating the same mistakes, with no way to break the cycle, are two of the most frequent causes that lead people to the path of psychotherapy, Ana Teixeira, a clinical psychologist for 11 years, affirms. “They avoid every consequence and get blocked in the process”, she explains. “Those they can’t avoid, pose a great difficulty in error management. They have no strategies to deal with guilt, to accept the mistakes they make.” The evolution of knowledge, civilizations, the very scientific process, are made through trial and error, but occidental culture is also based on judgement and condemnation, and that possibility has a blocking effect. “The easiness with each we’ve learned to judge others”, Ana Teixeira continues, “poses an obstacle to learning from the mistakes we make.” The consequence is “a highly destructive way of learning.” Meaning that either we make the same mistakes, without being able to employ alternative strategies, or we avoid making mistakes, without trying to move forward. “If they were able to manage these patterns of dysfunctional practices, they wouldn’t need any help…” The trick therefore lies in “training the brain” to find new ways of operating. The problem is that this is a lot of work. It entails becoming aware of what you have and haven’t been able to do, since “change is only possible through consciousness.” Hence the rise of yet another problem: the solution comes from deep searching, and it isn’t necessarily something you can find and apply immediately. There is a need to “let your mind collapse” and “focus on what you’re doing.” But how can you do that, when results are far more appreciated than the steps and actions you take towards change? In post-traumatic situations, Ana Teixeira explains, “the possibility of learning from your mistakes is delayed. The psychological system can’t handle the pain, it dissociates, and the tasks that might dictate someone’s survival are left undone.” If it is already difficult to learn from error the moment it is committed, the time when we become ready to face them and to engage with new strategies is also unclear. Dealing with mistakes, or with the possibility of making them, infers a relationship with suffering. Well, one of the phrases Ana Teixeira’s patients most frequently say is: “Come on, don’t tell me that dealing with suffering can be a good thing.”
When nowadays we read a masterpiece like O Crime Do Padre Amaro, we don’t exactly picture Eça de Queiroz mingling, in public, with his own errors. When Eça’s first romance got published by Antero de Quental, on the Ocidental Magazine, the author was appalled: “I sent you a rough draft of a novel and you go and publish the rough draft”, he wrote to his friend, to whom he promised a nice hit of a cane for having burnt his “literary vanity”. In fact, the romance was accused of various sins, among which plagiarism, and by no other than the biggest literary figure at the time: Machado de Assis. Eça fought the critics but ended up correcting many aspects of his creation pointed out by the Brazilian author. Until it reached its final version, O Crime Do Padre Amaro grew to become three times lengthier than its original edition. “What will weigh more in your decisions, the stain left by failure or the regret of what could have been?” The quote is by Reshma Saujani, a north American of Indian ancestry, who in less than ten years, created the organization Girls Who Code, which as educated more than one million girls in computer science, offering them new career opportunities in a traditionally male-dominated field. Saujani has overseen this project with campaign actions, such as conferences and divulgation books. The authors of self-help books have a habit to fill pages and pages of tricks to achieve success, but Saujani is encouraging women to make mistakes and to not be afraid to do it often: “If you haven’t failed yet” she states, “you haven’t tried anything.” Saujani is addressing a segment of society that is made up of young people who still fall to feminine stereotypes, but meme culture, phrases made from snippets of high moments, overvalues those times when everything goes right, eliminating the process that exists in order to get there, during which a lot goes wrong. Consumer habits value perfection with no history, but history reminds us that the act of failing and adjusting is what shapes our learning path.
Hence, there is a pedagogical current rooted in error. Error becomes the bases of development, in a way that it allows for the creation of a process that constructs knowledge. When we’re brought up in a system of prohibition and obligation, our actions are arbitrated by punishment and reward. Pleasure is no longer in the act of doing, but becomes centered only in the final reward. Work turns into a burden, a sacrifice. Nonetheless, from the moment we are stimulated by the process, new alternatives pop up, different ways of thinking and of doing, that can be more interesting, more elegant, more cost-sensitive, more effective. More fun. By trying to do things differently we might fail, but there’s also room for understanding just how far we can go. Above all, we invert the competitive dynamics: it’s not about doing everything like others do, it’s about learning to do better than what we did before. Tomorrow represents the possibility of growth. The persistence that comes from trying again and again is rewarding, not because we’re successful, but because we’re moving closer to where we want to go. We’ve learned to distinguish strategies that produce favorable results from those that fail repeatedly. The majority of things we’ve learnt have already been discovered. Nevertheless, there are still unsolved problems with no solution in sight. In order to move forward, we’re condemned to fail. Perfection is nothing but a formula that replicates what has already been done, but the pursuit of something different depends on a randomness of factors that cannot be controlled. The biggest discoveries of science, as well as those of the human spirit, are connected to errors that accidently revealed to be solutions. Human behavior, however, is averse to error.
Angela Duckworth, phycologist and author of Grit, has found strength and enthusiasm in the mystery of love. The things we want and desire are introspective, Duckworth explains, but how interested we are in them can only evolve when we interact with them on the outside world: “Without experimenting, we can’t predict what interests will hold beyond the initial attraction.” Even then, the question remains: why do we believe in the power of passion so much, but can’t persevere in it? Duckworth takes us back to our astonishing fear of failure. It is so paralyzing that we’d rather not risk it at all. The one thing more painful than defeat, in the eyes of a quitter, is fighting for something and then loose it. The sorrow, the guilt, are the consolation of those who don’t get whatever they were searching for. And that’s why, as Duckworth affirms, we perceive brilliance in those who succeed: “We’d rather live with mystery. We’d rather believe that excellency comes spontaneously. We do not want to keep up with the process that turns an amateur into a specialist.” The thing about those who don’t take a risk, is that they are disproved of passion, as Duckworth sees it. People paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes only take pleasure from being successful, but “passion lies in enjoying the things we do.”
In tennis there is this one move called “unforced error.” It’s when the tennis player loses the point without having his/her opponent pose a problem or difficulty. If the athletes committing them were to be mediocre, unforced errors would showcase the incompetence of its performer, who was incapable of carrying out a simple game. However, the champion of unforced errors happens to be Roger Federer, considered by unanimity, the best tennis player of all time! During a match where he incurred in 81 unforced errors, a journalist asked him how he justified them. Federer replied that his focus wasn’t in statistics, meaning that his goal was to win, not count how many unforced errors he made. Indeed, he ended up winning the match. This is where common sense slips: we’ve grown accustomed to avoiding errors, but a winner like Federer doesn’t seem to care that much. Every time we list the victories of an exceptional persona, in whatever field, there’s a tendency to ignore the failures that are necessarily part of their journey. From science to the arts, through business and politics, what sets a famous and successful person apart from the rest is their capacity to overcome their own unforced errors, not avoid them. Federer, besides being the champion of unforced errors, has yet another disconcerting trait: as he gets older, his unforced error count also grows. It would be expected that such an experienced athlete as himself had learnt to fail less than he did when he was younger. Truthfully, Federer has learned! The mistakes he now makes are different than the ones he used to make. And these new errors are the forefront for his strategic thinking. In comparison to his younger opponents, he is in physical decline, but that isn’t stopping him from evolving in other aspects. And precisely there is where lies a huge tradition of great figures that have conquered the spotlight in their youth, but that never ceased to surprise us throughout their whole lives: Chaplin, Picasso, Einstein, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Churchill, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Lopes…
The decisive trait of a genius, we would risk saying, is not so much their talent, but their capacity to persevere during the moments where nothing is going as planned. In any competitive activity, a good outcome depends on the surprise effect. And that implies taking a risk. But what’s a multitude of errors worth against one sole moment of glory? The American pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) clarified this unlikely marriage between error and success. Monk was the jazz musician that composed most of the tunes regarded today as standard setters for American music. The compositions he wrote in his youth were, initially, considered to be weird, incompetent even, but 70 years later, they’re still played today – a little all over the world. The questions he posed trough his music continue to stimulate new generations to find answers. He called them “right mistakes”, which he set apart from “wrong mistakes.” Given the context of his music, his work is incredibly close to the physical world of Einstein. The errors they both committed became an everlasting fountain of discoveries and innovation. Those right mistakes are clues that disclose the future. The things we see as ultimate truths today might not bear any relevance tomorrow. Just like Reshma Saujani put it, “if you wait until everything lines up, it’s over.” It’s through error that we open the doors to new dimensions of life.
Originally published on Vogue Portugal November issue, "The Beauty of Imperfection."