The Road to Right

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.

Hat tip to Pinterest user Maddie Marsh: https://www.pinterest.com/maddiemarsh14/csicriminal-minds/

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.

Frigging Perfect

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.

Three Cases Where “Defying Your Limits” May Be a Super-Bad Idea

I’m a runner. Or at least, I’d like to think so. With the number of hours I’ve spent just running on my own, plus the number of running events I’ve joint, I’m pretty sure I’ve earned the designation.

When you join a race or marathon, you generally get a race kit, which could contain any variety of running-related items. Among the stuff I’ve collected is a lanyard that says “defy your limits”. Now, this is great, motivating stuff for those with a sports mentality. With taglines such as “Impossible is Nothing” or “Just Do It”, sporting goods companies tap into the psyche of their target audience and earn their loyalty through an “I totally get you” kind of social proof. Whether this ends up as a prescription for on top of being a description of their audience’s attitude is anyone’s guess, I suppose.

As we are bombarded with images of successful athletes pushing themselves to an almost self-flagellating degree in order to be the best in their arena, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the “no limits” mindset. However, if one takes a second to think, one will realize that this is not always helpful.

Some Physical Limits Are Real and Unpushable

Let’s start with the obvious: the very reason they are called “limits” is that you could not or should not go past them. Consider what you have to invest when you train: you invest time, money, and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and the body needs a certain amount of that for rest and food intake. Obviously, you can’t train if you’re not properly refreshed and fueled up. So basically, “eat food” and “sleep” are some non-negotiables.

Also, you have to accept your own personal physical limits. A heavyset person will probably not have a good chance as a sprinter, just like how a skinny person will probably not do well in Highland games. Short people usually don’t have a good chance of making dunks in the NBA. Of course, you may talk about people who defy the odds and set physical records in spite of physical limitations. I’ve been guilty of seeing a news item about a disabled person running a marathon and telling myself “what’s your excuse?”, and some short basketball players would want to point out players like Spud Webb or Nate Robinson and expect themselves to do as well. However, I’d like to think my comparison is more reasonable: all I care about is that if a person with physical challenges can push himself, so should I. I don’t expect myself to set dunk records because of some exceptions to the rule about short people not dunking.

The problem is that people often don’t remember the basic principle of “ceteris paribus”, meaning “all other things being equal”. So while it might be fair to point out that other people have overcome physical limitations to set records, you shouldn’t expect yourself to do as well as they do because, let’s face it, they may just have won a genetic lottery to get where they are. Not accepting that could lead to serious consequences.

Some Limits Can Be Pushed at Your Risk/Expense

People often admire athletes for their ability to override their pain and their fear. In a stressful, high-pressure situation, we admire those people who, with odds stacked against them, channel the most ruthless, cold-blooded sense of competition they can muster and will themselves to perform beyond limits and pull off a victory. Heart, guts, nerves, backbone, stomach: all parts of the anatomy, all what we expect from a real competitor.

However, pain and fear are there as controls to keep you from acting like a suicidal maniac. In fact, the brain is wired to respond more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. This is called negativity bias, and this is what allowed many of our loinclothed ancestors to avoid getting killed and make babies. Despite this evolutionary tendency, some people still deviate and develop a higher appetite for risks. They want the rush, the thrill, and the excitement, to the extent that they might get themselves hurt for not much good reason.

And this point is not all about fighting or contact sports. Consider our earlier point that people need rest and food, so you can’t do without it. If you’re a smart aleck, you’d probably ask “How little food and how little sleep can I do without? Maybe I can push it down to two hours’ sleep a day and just one meal to max my training time”. And to you I’d say “Have fun with that, you crazy anorexic insomniac gym junkie”. Like most people, you’d probably train yourself sick, injure yourself, or burn yourself out. You can push the limits, but the more they’re pushed, the more your choice becomes a dangerous tradeoff.

But again, there are exceptions. Consider Randy Couture, whose body basically says F.U. to lactic acid buildup, or crazy/lucky SOB Dean Karnazes, whose body has developed to the point that pounding out a marathon causes it no more stress than walking down a hall:

There are other examples of exceptions, and these should come not just with a “do not try this at home” disclaimer, but also possibly a “try body-swapping with these guys first” disclaimer.

Pushing Some Limits Doesn’t Make You Better

Imagine you’ve got a friend who’s simply insufferable when it comes to running. He talks everyone’s ear off about his training regimen, he always brags about his personal records, and he doesn’t let you forget that you’ve never, not once, gotten a better time than his in an official running event. Wouldn’t you want to shut him up? Wouldn’t you want to do anything possible to get yourself to the point that you can beat him and tell him to go suck an egg?

Not that you haven’t tried: you’ve trained yourself to the limit, you’ve tried different drills and workouts and routes, but you still can’t outdo him. And it’s eating you up.

Some elite athletes, those with an extreme “whatever it takes” mentality, will feel the exact same thing, only much, much worse. And they’ll resort to unethical means to perform better. They’ll do anything to get that edge, whether it’s through performance-enhancing steroids or some other non-training-related enhancement like blood doping:

Bottom line, they resort to dishonest tactics to push their limits. That’s not fair to the fans, that’s not fair to their competitors, and that’s not fair to the sport they’re a part of. And even discounting the moral angle, these methods can also cause significant harm to the user: the side effects of steroids are well-known, and there are also risks associated with blood doping.

So basically, like any type of advice or word of wisdom you encounter, take this with a pinch of salt. Feel free to defy your limits, sure, but consider carefully which hurdles to take on.