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)

Five unforgettable contemporary (short story) characters

I’ll be teaching a creative writing course in the fall, so I’ve been shuffling, brushing, idling my way through all my favorite short stories, mining them for the best possible instances of pen to paper or fingers to keys. In doing so, I realized that plot–while important–doesn’t wedge itself into the crevices of my mind like some characters have a way of doing so easily.

Here are the few inimitable characters that my students will definitely be meeting.

  1. Jackson Jackson from Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” He’s a sharp, homeless Spokane Indian on a quest to rescue his grandmother’s pawned powwow-dance regalia. Except that, like every other Indian in the story, he can’t raise more than a couple dollars before he’s traded them for a drink. The interesting thing about Jackson Jackson is that shades of his voice–more largely, Alexie’s–appear not only in this story, but in all of his work that I’ve read. So I guess I should say, Alexie’s protagonist represents much of his work, which would be a bad thing if his voice wasn’t so magnetic.
  2. Arnold Friend from Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The best way of describing Arnold Friend: he’s everything that he appears to be and nothing that he claims. So much of his development is accomplished through his boots. He might be the creepiest short story character ever sprung from a writer’s mind. Pretty amazing for a guy who spends the bulk of the story simply standing by a car.
  3. The nameless protagonist of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s “Farangs.” He’s a Thai teenage boy helping his mother run a beach-side hotel, though most of his time is naturally spent looking for amour amongst the female tourists. He has a pet pig named Clint Eastwood. This character has a jagged voice, yet his innocence is palpable throughout. Lapcharoensap’s protagonist is also unforgettable for that rare obverse look into cosmopolitanism and its effects on Thai culture.
  4. Mel from Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s one fourth of a pair of couples sitting around a table–talking about love. Though really, it’s largely Mel talking…and talking, his wherewithal well-tempered by alcohol. He’s (arguably) not the protagonist, nor is he very sympathetic, but he’s unforgettable for the way his thoughts translate to his tongue and spill right out onto that table.
  5. Natalia of Michael Faber’s “Bye-bye Natalia.” Without slipping you the ending, she’s a young Ukrainian woman having an online romance with Bob in Montana. She has a bleakness about her that upends “mail order bride” almost from the first page. Her choice has a universality about it, though the circumstances she’s in are very much of this place and this time; she is particularly Natalia.