Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Embracing Failure to Get Good

Teaching music students, I've seen the same phenomenon over and over again:
"Argh. Sorry!"
"One more time."
"God, sorry..."
"Jesus, wait, let me try that again."
It's not because I'm standing there, judgmentally. This is how they practice, alone, too. Oops; ack; sorry; I'll get it this time.

It seems humble. But it's not. It's egomaniacal. It reveals the person's self-image: unquestionably competent and impeccably correct. Blunders are aberrations to be blotted out via exclamation, apology, and various other bursting stress spasms. That wasn't the real me who just did that. Just because I made an error does not mean I'm someone who'd err.

There's a visceral desire to rewind the tape; to retract the aberration and preserve their unblemished record (unblemished, that is, aside from the ten billion previous boo-boos hastily rewound via apology, exclamation, and stress spasms). It's kooky, it's deranged, and it's how most grown-ups approach learning....which accounts for the proven fact that most humans can't learn at all past a certain age (the secret is to learn like children do).

If one starts out with an assumption of flawlessness, how can one grow? Learning requires wallowing in the fetid mud of your shitty incompetence. Fun! You must expect and even welcome failure, because that's the grain you’ll be laboriously grinding between your millstones. Learning isn't a glorious acquisition of virtuosity; it's a humiliating revelation of inadequacy. If you can't handle the latter, you won't/can't learn. In fact, you'll run, terrified, away from anything smelling the least bit like learning.

What is there for perfect people to practice, labor over, and develop? One can't polish perfection; one can only produce it and peer upon it rapturously. Work, practice, development, improvement, and aspiration require slop, much as soap requires dirt. 

If you like to work on stuff - to improve, grow, and develop - you need to love your muck. More muck, please! When the muck runs out (spoiler alert: it never will), what's left besides bong hits and masturbation? The end of muck would be an excruciating steady state of dreary boredom.

Those who cry out "Whoops!" and "Sorry!!!" to empty rooms as they catch themselves erring (and they don't catch much, being inherently self-forgiving) aren't really trying to get good. They just want to feel good, so they're going through the motions. One can either be good or feel good. Not both. They're diametrical pursuits.

People who've gotten good at something are old friends with their muck, having engaged in a lifelong practice of muck-wrangling. They're thirsty to uncover ever subtler flaws to dump between their millstones so they can grind, baby, grind. Over time, they get better and better, but, like exhausted chefs, the jewels of their creation are consumed by distant souls out there in the hoity-toity realms, while they gloomily tend their gurgling pit of guano [go with me here; the guano's just a metaphor; no, chefs don't tend gurgling pits of it. In their case, we can let them return to their mountains of puckering potato peels, congealing grease traps, or putrifying halibut. My point is that it’s not glamorous].

Meanwhile, those who feel good are immaculate, crisp, and full of bright confidence. Having scarcely met their own muck, they feel terrific! But while some may maneuver their way to success, few are any good at all...and none of them ever improves.

Imagine that: None of them ever improves.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect observes that dumb people feel smart because they're too dumb to recognize their shortcomings, while smart people feel dumb because they're smart enough to register their shortcomings. This profound observation applies well beyond intelligence. We can be trapped by countless such topsy-turvy framing skews.

Consider (as I did here) selfishness and generosity:
It's easy to spot selfish people. They're the ones who worry about how they're always giving too much.

Similarly, generous people are the ones who worry about how they're never giving enough.

Selfish people think of themselves as overly generous. Generous people think of themselves as overly selfish.

More such flips of perspective are cataloged at the bottom of this posting.

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