Friday, September 24, 2010

The Measure of Our Mistakes

In George Eliot's novel Adam Bede (1859), after the carpenter Adam Bede fights with a longtime friend who has (rather easily) seduced the woman that Adam himself loves, he muses, "I seem as if I'd been measuring my work from a false line, and had got it all to measure over again."

We often accidentally measure our work from a false line, but we are rarely inclined to measure it all over again, because to do so means openly admitting that we've made a mistake.  This admission is a hard one to make to ourselves or to others, and it becomes even more difficult when the measurements seem particularly serious or important.  

Instead, we seem to prefer go through life with ill-fitting careers or relationships, hoping that no one will notice the awkward gaps or the mental and emotional patches we've plastered over our obvious mismeasurements.  Because starting over again is too much work and leaves us open to the negative judgments of others, we'd rather just carry on as if everything is fine.  Because who knows?  Maybe it will all work out in the end.  

As any good carpenter can tell you, though, it won't. 

In Mindset (2006), Carol Dweck argues that the mental viewpoint that we adopt about success and failure dramatically influences--you guessed it--our successes and failures.  According to Dweck, "[b]elieving that your qualities are carved in stone--the fixed mindset--creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over" (6).  By contrast, if you adopt what Dweck labels a "growth mindset," you assume that "the hand you're dealt is just the starting point for development" (7).  

In essence, growth-minded individuals tend to roll with the punches whereas people with a fixed mindset know when they're beaten.  And both groups act accordingly.

A case in point: I love to cook.  Nothing makes me happier than making a feast for someone else to eat.  Don't get me wrong, I like to eat, but I love to cook. 

When I first started cooking, I made horrible mistakes.  Used the wrong ingredients, took bad short cuts, spilled stuff, burned stuff--you name it.  It used to make me terribly self-conscious.  I loved to cook, but I couldn't cook without constantly worrying that I would make a mistake while cooking for someone else, and that they would notice it and hate it.  And, by extension, that they would then hate me for it. 

Finally, as I was standing over the stove obsessing one night, a longtime friend told me very gently, "You know, you kinda have a little thing about things turning out perfectly." 

I rounded on him immediately; I was positively indignant.  I told him right then and there, in no uncertain terms: "I do not have a little thing about things turning out perfectly.  I have a big thing about things turning out perfectly."

When I thought about it later that night, I remembered something that had happened several years previously, when I was in college.  A guy I was dating invited me to have dinner with his family, and he cooked for us.  He made chicken and rice, and the rice was undercooked and crunchy.   I remember that at the time, all I could think was, "I hope he doesn't think it matters, because it really doesn't.  It's not his fault.  Rice is tricky sometimes--everyone knows that.  It was so nice of him to cook all of this for all of us, no one cares if one little thing didn't turn out right."

And, as it turns out, no one did.

So, I wondered, why couldn't I extend the same courtesy to myself?  If I didn't care when someone else made a mistake and if I was always still aware of their kindness and generosity and goodness, why did I assume that people would lose sight of my own good qualities in a mad rush to judge me on the basis of a faulty flan or an undercooked carbohydrate?

As Dweck observes, the difference between a fixed or a growth mindset can make a great deal of difference in how one perceives one's own efforts and their results.  Dweck notes that seventh graders with a fixed mindset typically blame themselves for their failures ("I am the stupidest," "I suck in math") or else they blame someone else ("[The math teacher] is a fat male slut ... and [the English teacher] is a slob with a pink ass") (57).  

As a similarly pink-assed English teacher, I have frequently marveled at how worried students can be about their mistakes, whether real or potential, no matter how small or negligible those errors might be.  I often have to remind them that I lead a rich, full, and happy life outside of class, so that they should not for a single second assume that I'm lying in bed late at night thinking, "Wow.  I can't believe Susie didn't know that participles can also function as adjectives.  I mean, where has she been for the last twenty years?!  And Bobby.  What's his story?  He didn't even know that George Eliot was actually a woman."

In the mid-70s, Andy Pratt sang, "If you could see yourself through my eyes/ You'd never be worried/ Just do what you gotta do."  When we start to feel the pull of the fixed mindset, it would be nice if we could remember those words and then just do what we've gotta do.   

As for me, I've solved the problem of my obsession with cooking perfection.  I recently hung a sign in my kitchen that reads, "I kiss better than I cook."   

Never underestimate the power of distraction.  

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."