Sunday, October 31, 2010

Necessarily Wrong

In computer science, many procedures and processes employ methods known as multipass algorithms. Essentially, multipass algorithms are used when you won't know what to do until after you've done it. So you try it once, learn something, and then try it again. The process repeats until you get the answer for which you're looking.

Our daily lives are filled with opportunities to use multipass algorithms. If you've ever cleaned a house that hasn't been cleaned in a long time, then you've likely employed a multipass algorithm. The cleaning leaves the house cleaner (mostly), but not as clean as you'd like it to be. In the process of cleaning, you shake loose bits of encrusted stuff or uncover spots of grease that had been obscured by the dirt clinging to them. So you clean again, and perhaps again; eventually the house starts to feel clean.

All scientific breakthroughs result from multipass approaches, sometimes taking generations of scientists repeating the cycle of trial, error and refinement. No scientist worth her grant money would ever say something like, "Get it right the first time!" If you could get it right the first time, then it wouldn't considered breakthrough material, or for that matter, significant.

The same goes for mathematical proofs. The first time a mathematical assertion is proved, the proof might occupy rooms of chalk-scrawled blackboards. Only later is it refined and reduced to what finally shows up on half a page of a high school text book in pure, simple elegance.

And therein lies the rub.

Teach Me Backwards
Most of us are taught math and science backwardly. Rather than being presented a problem and deriving an answer, we're presented an answer and taught to apply it. We're presented the cleanly articulated proof of a mathematical theorem or the simple formulaic representation of a complex physical concept (e.g., E=MC2) and we're taught what they mean and how to apply them. Rarely are we allowed to derive an answer from scratch, let alone to understand the painstaking, multipass process of iterative refinement that led to the answer we've been given.

This being the case, it's no wonder we often find ourselves looking to others for answers when confronted by challenges we haven't previously encountered. We google. We read self-help books. We consult with experts or counselors. We hire professionals. We seek outside help for everything from burst pipes to persistent rashes to determining our lives' purposes.

We tend to look to ourselves for answers only when we've exhausted all other possibilities.

Why? First, that's what we've been taught to do. Second, we don't want to get it wrong.

Necessarily Wrong
The motto of my first boss at Bell Labs was Excellence, Not Perfection. He once told me, "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not trying hard enough!"

He actively encouraged our team to stretch our boundaries, to try new things, to make mistakes and to learn from them. He wasn't particularly concerned about what we knew, he wanted to see how quickly we could learn. He wholeheartedly believed that to do anything great, you had to make mistakes; you had to get it wrong.

It was a remarkable place to work.

Think about it. Would you ever go see a movie where the characters knew exactly what to do in every situation and routinely ran their game plans without making any mistakes? Would you ever read a book where all the challenges were contained and understood? It's the unknown aspects of challenge, the mistakes made in response to them, and the resourceful recovery from those mistakes that make books and movies interesting, exciting.

Yet, we tend not to approach our own challenges in the same manner. We try to limit challenges to those we know how to handle. If we can't, then we immediately seek assistance from others.

How boring.

Last night, playing with Will Power, we had some amazing moments where everyone got past the perfection boundary and wandered into the excellence zone, not worrying about getting it right, not trying to avoid mistakes, but instead, playing freely, exploring. I gotta tell ya, excellence is way better than perfection, so much more interesting, so much more fulfilling.

Where are you holding yourself back because you've been taught to seek answers rather than to derive answers? Where are you limiting your challenges to those you already know how to handle or places where you're comfortable that you won't make mistakes? When your kids ask you how to do something, do you respond with instruction or do you ask them questions that allow them to derive the answers? How would your life be different if you decided that nothing worth doing could be done without making mistakes along the way?

Happy Sunday!
Teflon

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