I used to be a big CSI fan. Say what you will about how unrealistic some parts of it are and how it has affected expectations in the real-life justice system, but the characters were just too damn awesome. Gil Grissom, the lead protagonist of the flagship series who described himself in high school as a “ghost”, was my hero. He was smart, he was stoic, and he was wise. There’s probably a collection of his best quotes from the series out there, and I’m willing to bet more than half of those would be great nuggets that philosophers, scientists, managers, and practically anyone can learn from.
But the one quote of his that sticks out for me, from the minute I heard it until now, is this: “I’m wrong all the time. That’s how I get to right”.
One-Strike Perfection Doesn’t Exist
Businesses talk about how it’s important to get things right the first time. It all has to do with cost minimization, of course; the fewer times something has to be done, the less time and energy and fewer resources have to be invested in that thing, so less money spent. The thing is, in the real world, we know that hardly happens. It’s not like Tiger Woods picked up a golf club and hit a hole-in-one his first time out on the green, and I’m sure Bruce Lee didn’t get the one-inch punch down perfect overnight.
And it’s the same for me. In anything I do, I never could get it right the first time. For example, people might have thought me smart during my school days, and to some degree they were right. But I wasn’t smart… at least, not in the way they thought I was.
Everyone’s Aiming for the Bullseye
We live in a highly competitive world. Each person added to the population is a drain on the planet. Resources are limited, wealth is rationed, and every person has to prove their worth every day. So it’s hardly surprising why businesses don’t like the idea of mistakes being made. It makes sense; each time you miss a point in the first quarter makes it easier for your opponent to win the game, and the game is made so one side can win. And everyone understandably wants to win. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this justifies being a jerk. DO NOT BE A JERK, OR AT LEAST TRY NOT TO BE ONE.)
However, perfection isn’t a target you hit the first time. It takes practice; you aim for it, and it takes hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of attempts before you get it right. Anyone who’s ever tried to coach or teach anyone else knows that it’s unreasonable to expect much from a newbie.
So what’s the answer? How do you reconcile the reality and necessity of mistakes with the need to get things right?
It’s simple. There’s no secret to it.
Don’t Be Wrong for Long
Art. Sketches. Boxing. Sparring. Singing. Rehearsal. Marathons. Training.
For every field of endeavor that requires perfection, there is a mechanism that allows for mistakes… and those mechanisms allow people to make mistakes before they count.
As a student, I didn’t pick lessons up in the class the first time I heard them; I started picking them up the day or the week before, when I studied them in the textbooks, and went over them repeatedly until I got them through my thick skull and imprinted into the grey matter of my brain. (Personally, I think few students appreciate the value of a course outline or syllabus anymore; the real world is not kind enough to provide a heads up, so the young ones should enjoy the privilege.)
Each perfect swing Tiger Woods makes is not purely a product of raw talent. Bruce Lee didn’t get his martial arts mastery handed to him on a silver plate. And everyone remembers that commercial where His Airness recognizes the value of his mistakes.
The skills these masters are associated with took honing and polishing. These were not divine, supernaturally sharp blades handed down from on high; they were honed on whetstones or grindstones, forged in furnaces, created from iron and carbon extracted from the earth. They were products of a long, long process.
What is one thing that you’ve done that you really worked hard at to achieve or get right? What were the drills, exercises, and routines you had to do to achieve it? Did anyone help you with it, or did you do it all on your own? I’d like to see your input in the comments below. 🙂
P.S: It took me ten drafts to get this blog post to a point where I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes I added something, sometimes I removed something else. It’s a messy, unsystematic method, and it’s a process I spend a lot of time immersed in. But it’s my way, so it’s well worth it.