Overheard at Tresidder: “Life is just a series of fuck-ups because we’re all so bad at it.” A sad summary of the prevailing Stanford attitude toward messing up. Life is a game that you can be good or bad at, and if you are bad at it you lose. Forget happy accidents. Goodbye room for error. There never were no wrong answers.
I noticed my own stringency with mistakes over winter break. It was Christmas Eve and I was baking chocolate-chip cookies with my dad for Santa. I made a stupid mistake and doubled the flour in the recipe. (So stupid – already the judgment creeping in.) It was awful; the dough looked like edible clay. I was so frustrated I had to leave the kitchen and fume in my bedroom until the cookies finished baking, abandoning my dad and Santa because I couldn’t roll with the punches.
The cookies turned out fine – more like miniature cakes than cookies – but that’s not the point. The point is that I don’t think we practice messing up often enough at school. To get into this place, you can’t afford to practice a whole lot of messing up. And so you achieve, accomplish and are accepted. You work so hard to hear someone say “yes” but you never work the edge that hears “no” and remains intact. You work so hard to memorize the recipe, but you forget to work the muscle that kicks in when you add too much flour. So when you mess up, you shatter. You cast aspersions and deem yourself “bad” at cooking, “bad” at math, “bad” at life. You over-develop one muscle at the expense of another, and forget to integrate the whole system.
This nearsightedness misses the messiness of achievement. You may have goals, but they are not framed by goal-posts. If anything, mine are frustratingly ill-defined, as variable as a mirage in an undergraduate Sahara. Today I want to go to law school; yesterday I wanted to be a ballerina. Who knows what the Holy Grail will look like tomorrow? So why sweat a mistake en route when the straight and narrow is actually quite vast and circuitous? A win toward a certain end strengthens either the ballerina or the lawyer, but is of little use when the mirage of success dissolves and takes a new shape. A loss however, along any path, strengthens the mysterious muscle that serves both ballerina and lawyer. Call it resilience. Call it adaptability. Whatever it is, suffering a loss makes you versatile, humble and most importantly, flexible.
I was in a yoga class recently sweating through chair pose, grimacing, but feeling the burn. The teacher caught me unawares. “Work your edge,” she told the class. “Maybe today that means sitting lower, and maybe today that means backing off.” I was surprised that backing off could be an edge to work, that softness and compassion could take just as much effort as hardness and aggression. I sat lower, naturally, because I was feeling petty and competitive, and because I’m a Stanford student. I have a new edge to work, one that requires falling down and getting back up and taking myself with a grain of salt. I invite you to work it with me. Here’s to not taking ourselves too seriously this year.
Let Renée know about your mess-ups and cookie disasters at firstname.lastname@example.org.