Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Willingness to Make Mistakes

I was the chief guest at a rather holistic and invigorating school's Annual Talent Day. I was a misfit from the very outset. I thought chief guests were typically top businessmen or people high in the government offices or people who had done something entirely unique to deserve standing there, up on the stage with clueless kids assuming that they were in the presence of someone noteworthy. But I wasn't. I was just another software engineer who had qualified himself to be a computer scientist but had grown hoarse declaring that software engineering and computer science are quite different. My being well versed in a dozen other things doesn't count if I haven't done anything with them and haven't chiseled an exalted crevice for myself in the limestone walls of the Cathedral of greatness. I am just someone walking around that Cathedral running a solitary finger on the walls of the edifice, writing poems describing the falling flakes as they land on the washed flagstones, creating, in my poems, towering manors for ants. Soon my finger tip wears and I realise that walking around the Cathedral doesn't bless one with entry. What is there to speak of alcoves and crevices?

I was told that I need to speak to children. I was delighted and never bothered asking whether it would be to the tiny tots in kindergarten or the ones who are slightly more grown up, shy and faltering as I would speak to them directly. Children are beautiful in every size, I believe. I said yes. One day before the actual Annual Day celebrations, I was brought to the piece of news that I would need to be chief guest and the first thing that screamed in my head was, "But, I have done nothing. Honest!" I suppose this is also what an innocent man says when imprisoned for the wrong reasons. I presume that the impulse is the same - neither of them belong to where circumstances derail their life's trains. Undoubtedly, mine stopped at a school and hoisted me out: "There you go, E! Now be a chief guest!"

I kept wondering how I should conduct myself. I was numb with the sheer weight of being something I have never been nor prepared to be. I knew I would have had no problems with the children, but their parents! They would look down their nose (though that would be physically impossible for one attempting to look at me) and scoff, "A mere computer scientist!? Why, I am certain we could have found at least a dentist who had done the most number of molar extractions in Bangalore city to be the chief guest. Surely, my child should receive an award from a better man!" The child, of course, would have had no problem taking her certificate from any pair of hands and rushing off to sit on her father's lap. I would have also had no problems except when expected to rise and face individuals beyond the mental age of 15.

Hence, I decided to address only those who felt comfortable in belong to the club of the Un-Aged. But what should I speak about!? Kids are very clear when asked that question: nothing. They'd rather have me play with them or watch cartoons than hear me speak. Parents on the other hand expect me to redeem myself by providing some profound insight (neither of these words are understood by kids) into the business of living or making one. I really had nothing to say. I usually do, but most often with intimate company. I can speak to an audience I have known in a rather involved fashion than to an audience I am meeting for the first time. How do I know what they want to hear? I don't even know their favourite colour!

Perhaps all of this, running amock in my head, went silent in the face of one true terror: what if I goofed up and said something I wasn't supposed to!? I recall once doing something like that in school. Back in school, each child had his/her day when s/he would walk up in front of the entire school and utter a quote of great significance by a person of renown. It was my day and I realised I had nothing in my kitty. I dug deep and recalled one by Einstein. So I walked up in front of everyone, adjusted the microphone (as I have nearly always done) and said "When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it's only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it's two hours. That's relativity." (I realise there are several versions to this. I have no clue which one I chose). My teachers asked me to stay back after the assembly and thought I was being cheeky. They also thought I had no respect for the quote-a-day activity (which is perhaps something that can be inferred else I would have come prepared, though I think the true reason was that I forgot). A couple of teachers laughed (like kids) and thought I was quite funny. I had to say something noteworthy the next day and I did. I think I quoted Mahatma Gandhi or someone equally serious and who had very little sense of humour.

So here I was, meeting customers and talking to them about software strategies (which is not what your average computer scientist or software engineer does) and corporate visions (as well as software products) and cracking jokes and delighting them with the realisation of how intuitive the entire thing was, but still drawing a blank at the prospect of having to address a whole school of individuals expecting something intelligent, profound and deep from the chief guest.

I landed in the school at the appointed hour, spoke for a while with the wise principal and his wife, looked up at the clouds for some sign (either rain or the script of my speech) and kept on walking. When I had to hand out the certificates to the students, I was at ease congratulating each and every one of them for their individual noteworthy trait (for which they were being recognised) and addressing them by their names and not "Son" or "Young lady". Somehow, I feel an instant connection with people of my age group though they look cuter walking up to receive certificates!

After some wonderful performances that the students had put together, I was to get on stage and make the speech. I walked up there and the lights were glaring into my face. I do not have a clue about what I spoke, but I will soon put down what I wanted to say. Those few minutes (and I ensured that I didn't speak for more than a few minutes) are nearly entirely lost to me. When people (parents and children and friends) came over later to tell me that they were immensely impressed with the speech and thought it was wonderful I had no clue whether they were just being nice or they were truly touched. As I said, I have no memory of that speech (but that is true even about the posts I write!)

I think I spoke about the willingness to fail and make mistakes. Those who heard that speech and are also reading this post needn't strive to find correlation for there might be none.
The quest for perfection is not flawless
We are taught to respect correctness, completeness and success. These aren't mispronounced virtues but they are given undue importance. It is vital to know when to be correct and exacting. One cannot be otherwise while performing a surgical operation ("Excuse me! You have a hernia!? Why, I thought you were waiting for your leg to be amputated! No? Oops") or driving a bus full of living creatures or nuclear waste (no, I don't equate them). One cannot be casual under misplaced sanctions of being allowed to fail occasionally. Being frivolous is not what I am discussing and it would do well for the reader (and thinker) to dispel that at the very outset. No matter of life can be prescribed an application of an uncaring casual mind and effort. Nevertheless, to consider a serious mind and an ever-successful industry to be one and the same is the progressive failing of our society.

To me, permitting mistakes and failing is not a benevolent act nor something to be served to make a soul more noble. These aren't policy decisions to make a better society. I shall explain why I urgently wish to depart from such hurried conclusions. To me the willingness to fail and make mistakes is personal and individual and doesn't call for sanction. The willingness to fail and make mistakes is not the same as tolerating or accommodating mistakes and failure in society. I wish to impress upon the reader that these are different though we all know that it is always preferred to play lawn tennis in the cool airs of Northern France than in the sub-Saharan venues. What I mean is that it would be easier for an individual (who is willing to fail) to carry on with his life in a more educated society than in a brutish and oppressive one.

The willingness to fail allows one to be open to possibilities as well as imbibe true intuitive learning. Intuition is not about mere hunches and gambles or soothsaying. It has to do with the visceral connection to Truth (in its various forms including material knowledge) which makes understanding and gnosis possible without having to adopt artificial mechanisms of picking and choosing a subset of accumulated knowledge to apply in a given situation or matter under consideration. If I am focused on succeeding, I will only adopt the time-tested or hyped methods available to do anything and perhaps, everything. If I am interested in learning and growing, I will understand the subject under consideration, explore, experiment, test limits, approach it from various points of view and learn. There is no place for failure in here as everything that appears to others as a failure or a mistake is essentially a deeper understanding. In having found different ways that do not work, one understands why something does work. In finding the myriad ways one can be mistaken about something, one realises the Truth about that thing. Sometimes, this realisation comes without making mistakes and that is welcome as long as that intrinsic clarity/genius is not made the touchstone of all living.

In understanding this, it is important that parents who had the patience to raise their child long enough to get them into schools show a lot more and educate their child into retaining that spark of humility, that willingness to be in the wrong purely in order to learn what is Right. If the child doesn't remember it and repeats a mistake, find different ways of helping your child remember and realise the Truth in various things that surround her. One's laziness and lack of time cannot be an excuse for reprimanding the child while she is learning. Once the child is comfortable in truly learning, she will enjoy seeking Rightness and not treat it as an ordeal. And please do not compare your child with another. You probably wouldn't like it if your ward started comparing you with whom she thinks is an ideal parent. Work as individuals to a collective sense of goodness and Rightness. And, frankly, the other child is as important as yours. So, if you feel that your child is doing fine then spend some time with one who is having some difficulty.

With lesser censure the child ceases to distinguish between success and failure though progressively gains an understanding of clarity and ignorance. When a child grows to being comfortable living and learning through her life, she is less likely to subdue that beautiful voice in her head which in its untarnished golden timbre can help her be happy and at ease - the voice we sometimes call intuition. With that voice as your best companion, your creative and vibrant spirit will make Spring of all seasons. The joy of living is truly bequeathed to that soul.

I think I ended my speech thus (and the harsh lights screaming into my face were switched off and hence, I have a vague memory of this): I have no clue why I was considered to be a chief guest at this immensely important function, but I would like to console myself into believing that I was chosen because I am most comfortable making mistakes.


  1. Parvati11:17 AM

    :-). Hope you enjoyed the experience! And hope you haven't burnt all your chances to repeat the same in the future...:-D

    # I am sure that anyone who reads the post, would agree with me when I say that the title of the post ought to be " Before, during and after -" (the speech, that is, and not just 'The Willingness to make Mistakes', wouldn't he?

    # The major fallacy in the content of your speech and/or this post is that you don't realise that you are speaking about two indispensable and intricate components of a human being, in one statement - 'the quest for perfection is not flawless '

    The quest for perfection, the relentless, pure, exalted and continuous and undaunted quest for perfection, knowledge, light and excellence stems from the eternal values that are of the eternal aspect inside man, his true self or his soul.

    While, on the other hand, the realm of errors, flaws, failure, mistakes belong to the lesser hemisphere, the outer personality of man that consists of a thin narrow strip of mental dogmas, society's conditionalities and determinants, ambitions of the mind and life forces, passions of the emotions and the body's self preservation and a million other elements whose only common feature or characteristic is that they are engendered from the innate dark ignorance that is the nature of the unregenerated, untransformed outer human being.

    When you propose a quest for perfection, you propose that the soul's truth be lived in utter light; whereas in the same breath when you talk about a willingness to make mistakes, you are reverting to the way of ignorant darkness and forcing it, when it possibly cannot, to pretend to be a transformed element in the soul's light.

    In short your assumptions as reflected by your whole post involve an oxymoron of contradictory paradigms.

    # The decision to pursue perfection is from a paradigm and that should continue to be the motivator and the frame of support for the human being until he chooses to abandon that decision.

    You assume a toggling of stance from one frame of reference to another constantly and stipulate ways to accommodate such an agitated and stressful existence.

    Quest for knowledge stays forever in the soul and the SOUL cannot, does not and will never see the way to be flawed, or filled with mistakes.

    As to whatever else sees the soul's quest itself as flawed will also see the way as flawed.And it is best that the soul stay in its realm and psychology of functioning, follow its path in an intrepid way, unminding of the hell and damnation unleashed by the non-soul components in others or one's own self.

    There are no mistakes in the motive power, in the decisions and the execution-path that originate from the soul of man.

    So your post is, I would say, moot.

    There is a proverb in tamizh which says, aathula oru kaal, sethula oru kaal.

    You choose to write a post that confuses the products of two contradictory attitudes to be from one source.

    # Hope my comment is not the biggest mistake from your point of view, when it is all light and generous enlightenment offered kindly by me to your ignorance, from my own self-loving prejudiced view point!!


  2. Dear P,
    I think I can count only on you to read through the entire post and write a comment as long as the post!!
    The fallacy in your comment is that you are confused between mistakes and pettiness. A person committing a mistake intentionally (for all the reasons you state) is essentially petty. A person committing a mistake out of ignorance is not petty but merely ill-equipped.
    So I urge the human mind to always progress towards perfection (in a holistic sense) even with a kaizen approach. On that path, there will always be deterrents and things weighing down. A person who is a realised soul or entirely connected with the Divine, probably will not be affected. The common man will surely be affected by all these winds.
    As I said in the post, I am not prescribing a lazy or irresponsible attitude which says "Since it is ok to fail, let me not waste my time working so hard to be perfect!" I think I made it very clear. Perhaps you missed it. Hence, they are not contradictory. I am not saying "You must be perfect" and "You must also keep failing occasionally else I can't write blog posts". I am saying "You must keep striving to be perfect and if you falter and make mistakes and fail, then its ok because you get to learn and truly understand the depth and breadth of what you are perfecting so don't be uncomfortable with the learning process which is party to the so-called successes and the so-called failures, equally."
    So the way is not flawed nor filled with mistakes. The way simply is. The human mind perceiving it is not a pure reflection of the way. Which is why the Tao Te Ching exists; to help people recognise the Way. Even without the TTC, the Way can be recognised! :-)
    I think your greatest impediment to understanding this post and perhaps earlier ones is that you disallow the human being to be anything other than a realised soul. It is as if, you refuse to acknowledge the possibility and the reality of simple common human beings who are genuinely lost and not petty or vicious.
    I needn't address the one connected to the Tao. I see no point in talking to the base human being. If at all I speak, it is to the man who hasn't realised and doesn't even know what to realise. It is with him that a conversation is necessary.
    So your understanding of this post is entirely wrong and you might think that you made a mistake in putting down the incorrect understanding as a comment, but that's ok! Or so the post says! :-D

  3. I like ur title "The Willingness to Make Mistakes"...
    I think mistakes are the learning experiences...

  4. DearE,

    I read the whole post...a part of the 1st comment!

    I guess I almost understood the post but not the first 2 comments!

    Your post took a serious note from the second half.The quote you said in your school was cute :~P Which class were you in??

    And that was a really nice speech.
    Willingness to make mistakes,learn from them and learning through life.

    That School rightly invited you as the chief guest! You gave a message that surely must have had influenced the parents and children for better.

    I love reading long posts too!

  5. Dear G,
    Welcome to this blog. Glad you liked the title... :-)

    Dear Y,
    Reading the post is achievement itself. Reading Parvati-ji's comment too in one breath is a little over ambitious!! People often simply skip the post and read her comment!! The 2nd half would be when the "speech" starts, right!? :-D I think I was in class 10 or 11 when I shared Einstein's insight with an unappreciative audience! ;-) I think you summarised it well though summaries and quotes usually leave curious people like me wondering why they said that. I think I will read the post again!! Glad you read long posts too. You will find them abundantly out here...