Why the smartest people make the most mistakes

When I was five, I sat on the white stripe that demarcated the soccer goal—or nearabout—and picked flowers.

My father was competitive, bothered. He yelled at me from the sidelines. Meanwhile, a trailing pack of children kicked the ball in large figure eights around the field.

It was my first and last soccer game.

I began and finished many things during my childhood this way, with a sort of non-acknowledging obstinacy. Maybe the flowers were more interesting; maybe I recognized that I would not be able to kick the ball, or did not want to, and so at five years old, I had the inarticulate feeling that it just wasn’t for me.

This was what led me to figure skating, to reading and writing…all things I felt were for me because my initial forays were met with some success.

And I understand now that my childhood epitomizes the American attitude toward mistakes.

The Confidence Code, a book about women and self-confidence, focuses briefly on this attitude as compared to that held by Asian cultures. Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, points out:

“In America…we see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. People who are smart don’t struggle; they just naturally get it. In Asian cultures, they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Stigler realized this after sitting in on a math class in Japan, where one child repeatedly attempted to draw a circle on the board. No, the other children said, it was not perfect. In the U.S., this child might have grown frustrated, might have cried. Instead, he kept repeating the process until a perfect circle emerged from the chalk in his hand. He was proud when he returned to his desk, and the others clapped.

In fairness, the American ethos is all about the struggle when it comes to sports, efforts of the body (I was just uniquely proficient at rejecting all forms of struggle as a child). But Stigler is right about the way we’ve aligned smarts with ease.

Look at any LinkedIn profile (my own included), and you’ll see a professional life swept clean of failure, a stack of work accomplishments and volunteering and awards that indicate nothing about the many disregarded job applications, lousy interviews, and instances of firing-downsizing-letting go that may or may not have occurred. On Facebook, we face similar pressure to highlight how very well our lives are progressing, to secret away our unhappiness, our lack of success, our struggle.

In her meditative memoir Excess of Being, composer and pianist Lera Auerbach describes mistakes as “cracks in the walls of your prison.”

Americans admire narratives of perseverance, of struggle. We are inspired by J.K. Rowling’s many attempts to publish Harry Potter; by Henry Ford’s five failed businesses before Ford Motor Company; by Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard, failing spectacularly with the non-functional Traf-o-Data, leading to his founding of Microsoft.

Still we are afraid to make mistakes, to fail. And I’ve come to understand that the smartest among us have figured out what American society doesn’t teach: that struggle frees us, allows us to pursue the things that we are not good at, opens us to opportunity.

But first we have to draw imperfect circles.

photo credit: Wood Circles by THOR (license)

One thought on “Why the smartest people make the most mistakes

  1. Without trying to get too political about it, I think there’s something to be said for concepts of risk and failure within different social strata, too. There are a lot of people who seem to enjoy coming down on the poor and “lower middle class” to the effect of “you’re poor because you failed, and you failed because you’re poor.” At the same time, we have institutions that are “too big to fail,” and people like Donald Trump are hailed as savvy businessmen and brilliant strategists, when they’ve failed as often in their chosen focus as they have succeeded.

    Much has been made in the last few years about the “privatization of profit and the socialization of risk,” and the concept that a lot of people who fail don’t seem to care because they are, in essence, playing with house money. Which, interestingly enough, seems to sit in stark contrast to the Japanese model, where if a business fails at something big-time, you’ll see the CEO do something like cut his take-home pay in half to save face.

    Failure and shame, then, seem to be intrinsically linked for a lot of people, but do people who aren’t afraid of failure do better, or do people do better because they’re not afraid of failure? Is there a nature vs. nurture concept at play?

    (Miss you at the game table, by the way! :-))

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