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Years ago, I ran across the Gerald Jampolsky quote “You can be right or you can be happy.” It made no sense. For me, being happy meant being right.
I grew up assuming I was supposed to know what to do and how to do it. My parents were fixated on doing everything right, and they seemed to magically know how. Always.
I still haven’t figured out whether they were good at everything they did (which was a lot) or they simply didn’t attempt anything they hadn’t already mastered before I appeared on the scene. Either way, both parents presented childhood role models of infallibility. Imperfect action was roundly criticized, and imperfect products were quickly eliminated. I never saw struggle and certainly didn’t experience messy.
Do It Right or Not At All?
In school, I followed the family motto of “Do it right or not at all.” If I immediately earned high praise, that was a cosmic sign of my worthiness to study the subject. If I failed (meaning grades lower than A’s), I had no business in that class and needed to do everything possible to ensure I never came near the subject again.
This mindset explains how I ended up devoting my life to language arts. My early years were built on reading, writing, talking, watching films, and listening to the radio; it was no surprise, then, that English and everything related to communication came easily to me. On the other hand, math was a learned skill I had encountered only as a required school course; so when geometry first landed on my eighth-grade plate, I knew it so little, I had to actually learn the stuff from scratch—a painful process that involved an uncontrollable compass and a humiliating C on my way to the final grade of a B minus (emphasis on the minus).
I steered away from the high school math-and-science track.
The Immediate-Success Method of Approach and Avoidance
I’m not alone in having adopted this method of approach and avoidance, and many college students continue to rely on what they already know in order to gauge their career potential. They take an accounting class; if it seems foreign, they decide they weren’t meant to become an accountant and switch majors. Other students dream of working in health care until they hit chemistry and have to learn a new language.
And so the pattern continues, into and through adulthood. Creatives, it seems, are particularly susceptible to the idea that the happiness of vocational fit relies entirely on the rightness of immediate success. If a writing teacher praises our fledgling prose, we feel we have the right to become writers. If we can sell our first sculptures, then we’re entitled to call ourselves artists.
Conversely, criticism or rejection indicates we’re not cut out for whatever it is we thought we wanted to do.
The Truth about Learning
The truth of the learner’s brain is something several of us seem to have missed. We don’t give ourselves permission to do the new thing very badly (whether solving equations or composing an overture) with acceptance that it’s OK to be wrong on the way to becoming right.
In advising adult learners as part of my previous higher education career, I was struck by how many rebelled against their own imperfections as students. Often, when they didn’t receive A’s immediately, they became angry—either with their instructors, who obviously didn’t recognize brilliance, or with themselves, for thinking they could attempt to succeed in formal education. Whether externalized or internalized, this anger created college dropouts.
I discovered, though, that cognitive reframing helped many of these students. They seemed surprised when I suggested the reason for taking the class in the first place was that they didn’t know the subject and needed to learn it. They weren’t supposed to know what they were doing and achieve immediate perfection. And their instructor was the instructor by virtue of having already mastered what the student hadn’t yet learned. It was way too early for the student to become the teacher.
I advised it would take time, mistakes, corrections, and practice to become good at anything totally new, and despite modern grade inflation, C’s were great starts. I also pointed out that usually even seeming naturals have already had some sort of life experience that jump-started their smooth learning paths. They make connections to hooks that were previously forged somewhere in their brains. No hooks means creating something out of nothing, and that not’s easy for anyone.
Willingness to Struggle and Change
Now I’m taking my own advice. I’ve committed to spending the month of November writing fifty thousand words toward a novel. I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last year but quickly abandoned my fledgling book because I wasn’t ready to become a beginner. This year I’m prepared for cluelessness.
I’ve never written a piece of fiction longer than a few pages, and I certainly don’t know how I’m going to write that many words in thirty days. I’m a slow and thorough writer. I take a long time to generate (and reject) ideas, to research, to organize, to outline, and to get words on the page.
And I’m easily overwhelmed by large groups (NaNoWriMo attracts more than four hundred thousand participants from six continents), hype (just try to find a writing post in late October that doesn’t mention NaNoWriMo, now including mine), and the crowd pressure that many see as enjoyable support (forums! local events! time sucks! oh my).
So I start without competence or fit—yet willing to be changed by an intense experience of discomfort and struggle. Perhaps the need for speed will teach me to quiet my constant inner censor and allow writing that reaches new levels of authenticity. Maybe I’ll quash punctuation perfectionism in pursuit of unjudged creativity. And it’s possible I’ll see new ways to reorder my time-management priorities.
I could even find that being part of an international group of hundreds of thousands, all simultaneously working toward the same goal, provides a sense of belonging I didn’t realize I needed.
Regardless, I’ll dive deeply into novel structure, into writing, and into myself. I’ll experience persistence at a new level. I may not end up with a lasting product, but I’ll fully engage with a process that doesn’t care how badly I do on the way to doing better. And I might even learn that being happy doesn’t equate to being right, after all.
With apologies to my parents, it could feel good to do it wrong—and do it, anyway. I’ll let you know in December.
What are you willing to do badly on your way to learning? Please tell us about it in the Comments section below!