Sunday, January 22, 2012

On learning, growing, and making mistakes

This entry is the conflation of several different things that have been bouncing around in my head for the past few days.

It started with a reply that I made to an entry on a woodworking message board. The short version is that someone was having an issue with wood that they'd resawed, and made the comment that "that's a mistake I'll never make again."

I feel that a common thread among some of the woodworkers I've met, is a confused feeling of failure when things don't go according to plan, that many of them take personally. (I don't think this is what the OP was trying to say, but it's the reaction I had to some of what he wrote.) Sometimes, this feeling is enough to throw people off of their game... or in some cases, to put the game aside for a little while.

I responded, citing John Ruskin. I had to paraphrase, but basically what Ruskin said is that the Greeks' insistence on perfection was their downfall. This insistence on perfection restricted Greek craftsmen to only using techniques that they could execute flawlessly every time. There was no room for growth, because there was no room for error. So their work, while flawless, was simple. He then proceeds to say that the heart of Christianity is forgiveness, and that this is critical for the growth of an artisan. Only someone who can forgive himself for his own growing pains can ever reach his full potential.

If ever there was a skill that required the ability to forgive a few dropped balls, it's juggling. Today I was watching a video of a juggler named Michael Moschen going through a juggling routine in an auditorium. (The video is 37 minutes long. It's fun, but it requires time.) At 13:45 he stops, and says; "Let me put you in that area of learning, which is very insecure."  He then tries to teach the audience a simple trick to do with their fingers, and it gets a laugh. Then he tries to get them to do it while following the balls that he's juggling. At 16:10, he captures the awkward moment for the audience to make his point:

"That's actually what most people face, throughout their lives. A moment of learning. A moment of challenge. It's a moment that you can't make sense of. Why the hell should I learn this? Does it really have anything to do with ANYTHING in my life? I can't decide. Is it fun? Is it challenging? Am I supposed to cheat? What are you supposed to do?

"You've got someone up here who's the operative principle, of doing that for his whole life, ok. Trying to figure that stuff out. But, is it going to get you anywhere? It's just a moment. That's all it is; a moment."

It's these moments that make us better at what we do: Feeling overwhelmed, confused, a little awkward, and very tenuous.

It's summed up very well by the Taoist Chuang-tzu: "The torch of doubt and chaos, this is what the sage steers by."

This is later paraphrased, probably unintentionally, by Albert Einstein, in his 3 rules of work:
1. Out of clutter, find simplicity.
2. Out of discord, find harmony.
3. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.

These learning moments are clearly not an uncommon experience. The real challenge is to maintain your bearing, to keep a positive attitude, make your mistakes with grace, and Keep Moving Forward. As Steve Jobs put it, it's "the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything."

Notable Physics geek and intellectual Randall Munroe had something similar to say on the topic:

"Handy exam trick: when you know the answer, but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don't notice the seam."

I left three years of woodworking retail jobs with the indelible impression that the stores, magazines, and tool companies are all trying to sell hobbyists on the notion that woodworking is easy, jigs will make it simpler, and all you need is the right magic wand, and the cash to afford it. The simple truth is that real learning isn't simple, and it isn't easy. (It's not hard, either, but it's not easy.) Becoming better at anything, be it woodworking, juggling, or just daily life... is labor intensive. It takes time and forgiveness and courage to move through those learning moments.

Back to Michael Moschen (while he manipulates some new objects on stage, two minutes before the end of his show):

"The latest thing that I'm working on... I don't know what it is yet. And that's good. I like not to know for as long as possible. Well, because it tells me the truth, instead of me imposing the truth." (See the above referenced video, around 34:50)

This is the opportunity that lies within the moment. If you can put aside the feelings of awkwardness, and disorientation, and not try to force your own interpretation of what's going on, a nugget of something that's real and true will present itself. You need to be willing to make a few mistakes, and do things a few times before you notice the thing you were missing. With perseverance and attention, you'll learn something productive and useful from your efforts, and you'll be ready to move forward again.

The next time you find yourself lamenting the bumps and bruises, or think to yourself 'that's a mistake I'll never make again,' take the time to find the blessing in the moment. Every setback is a learning moment. Don't waste it.


upriver said...

Beautifully worded. I was meditating on something much like this yesterday while standing in the rain with a very uncooperative chainsaw and a maze of toppled trees to clear from the road. Fortunately, I was able to put the frustration aside and methodically field-strip the assemblies and just when I was about to give myself reasonable permission to give up, one last firing ignited the engine. Then the real work started, but that felt like enough for the day.

robert said...

Nicely crafted piece of writing.

Another good analogy is baseball. If you go to the plate and get on base 4 out of 10 times, you will have a long career in the majors.