Mistakes & Learning — The Elixir of Life

This article by Jerry Cates, first published in January 1999, was last revised on 23 April 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 01:01(07).


It is a curious fact, given the published research of Mortimer Adler and others, that most of us grow up believing that mistakes are the bane, and not the boon, of our existence. In 1941, writing in the Journal of Educational Sociology, Adler — buoyed by his access to over two thousand years of accumulated wisdom — presented an excellent case for the supposition that making even egregious mistakes spurs the learning process onward in special, essentially positive ways. If Adler is correct, each mistake we make should be cause for joyous celebration. But no, instead we tuck our tails, bite our upper lips, and hang our heads in shame.

Perhaps that typical response stems from inept parenting. Mom and dad, more often than not, tend to criticize their children when they goof. I suppose that’s not entirely bad, since the product of error is not the sweetest fruit. Yet children discern that truth on their own, without parental help. What they — and their parents — often overlook is that, by making mistakes, we learn some of life’s greatest lessons. Some, me among them, suspect those lessons cannot be learned as well or as effectively via any other route.

The making of mistakes is, by the way, the meaning of the word “experience.” The word is crafted by stringing three Latin roots together: ex- (from, out of), -peri- (that which is around, about, or near us), and -ence (pertaining to). Out of the trials and errors of our lives are borne our most realistic, and thus our most useful, concepts of living.

Experience is the act of living through an event, of being a part of it, and — most importantly — of learning something of lasting value in the process.  This explains why living an active life of experience — specifically one filled to the brim with mistakes — and the evolution of wisdom within the mind of the mistake-maker, are inextricably linked. The Scottish diarist, James Boswell, in his 1791 “Life of Samuel Johnston,” wrote that men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience. Samuel Johnson had such a capacity, and because of his unabashed willingness to experience life, he became one of the most distinguished men of letters in English history.

The context here is not so much the fun, pleasant, happy times of our lives, but those sad, difficult, teeth-gritting ones — specifically those that come with loss and lack. Samuel Johnson knew of such, and that knowledge made him great. Today, however, our culture assiduously seeks to avoid pain, hardship, and poverty. That focus so mocks reality as to misrepresent it as something akin to a laughable myth. But reality is never mocked for long, and there is no humor in our failure to recognize that the more we suffer — the more difficult the path, and the harder we have to grit our teeth and spill our blood, sweat, and tears to reach our goals — the more we are apt to learn along the way.

Poverty. So reviled a word, it is. And so maligned.

The word is used as an epithet in every circle today. Yet we all should know, intuitively, that there is no shame inherent to the state it labels, whether economic or intellectual. Impoverishment is, by definition, a statement of personal lack. Like a mistake that signals we’ve used poor judgment, poverty is a sign we can do better. It cannot impinge upon our consciousness unless we also see a right path and a better station before us. Recognition of poverty in our life is proof we discern the way forward, out of it. All that is left is to rise off our rumps and take one step after another until we reach the prize.

Seen aright, poverty and mistakes are powerful springboards to a better life, at least to those who live where freedom’s bell sounds. You are your own success story, in the making, and the lower on the scale you begin your journey upward, the higher your eventual ascent, provided you believe in yourself, work hard, and accept the sacrifices that the obstacles in your path necessitate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his seminal essay on Self-Reliance, put it this way:

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Emerson had no reverence for entitlements. Do you envy another person’s riches? He brands that ignorance. Do you seek to imitate the prosperous men you see? Such is tantamount to suicide. You have yourself, for better or worse, and though surrounded by goodness, none of it inures to your benefit without effort on your part. He goes on:

“The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”

Achievement is not a product of cowardice.

“A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

The deliverance that does not deliver is that which is served up — that is, gifted without effort on our part — “on,” in earlier times we would have said, “a silver platter,” but today those malignant deliverances arrive in the form of welfare allotments, food stamps, and other kinds of government giveaways. That coward, known generally as a thief, who takes what is not his, receives such a deliverance. Strangely (to some), so does the heir of a great fortune, obtained through the death of a relative whose wealth was neither aided nor supported by he who now receives it. Today’s indulgent governments seek to deliver their voting masses from poverty by making everyone heirs to the grand fortunes of the wealthy, not realizing — or perhaps not caring — that the product of such folly is the unfounded, illogical belief that society owes its members a living. The process turns all who participate into thieves, with devastating consequences. All such deliverances are supremely ethereal. They are like tender grass that withers in the afternoon sun. The moment they wilt to nothingness it is as though they had never been. If not worse…

Such is nearly always the fate of riches too-easily gotten.

Perhaps that is why learning is so much rarer now than in earlier times. We are immersed in a sea of gratuitous information, more than at any time in earth’s history. But information and knowledge are not the same, as Jim Horning points out in his famous dictum that Nothing is as simple as we hope it will be. Horning lists this as his first, second, and third Laws, expressing thereby his view on how important it is that we get it right. We come into a bit of information, and deduce immediately that we have received knowledge. But no, though the two are distant cousins, they’re not even on the same plane.

Information used wisely leads upward, hierarchically, to knowledge, but only provided that the recipient of that information expends the effort required to ascend each painstaking, arduous step along the way. Those freely given “information” without price or effort more often misuse than use it. They debase it as something to which they are entitled, and mistakenly extrapolate, from that, the obtuse notion that knowledge and wisdom are similar entitlements without perceiving the steep staircase in between.

Yes, even an imbecile can today take advantage of mankind’s great store of knowledge. It is available to all, on one’s computer screen, with but a few clicks of a keyboard. Never mind that the bulk of that “information” is in actuality “misinformation.” And never mind that of the remainder, transforming it into useful knowledge requires great effort — in the form of research, meditation, and the assemblage of collaborating bits of evidence —- along with the application of wisdom borne of experience.

The present state of every field within American Academia, not to mention the embarrassing antics of many — nay, most — members of the United States Congress, together provide abundant proof that information without knowledge or wisdom threatens the quest for truth, and the liberty of all. We’ve lost sight of the fact that though information sets the stage for knowledge and wisdom, it does not confer either. Knowledge comes only from experience. Valuable experience, and the wisdom that only it confers, comes only with great effort, i.e., pain.

As early as the 2nd century A.D., Rabbi Ben Hei wrote, in Pirkei Avot 5:26, that “According to the effort is the reward.” Benjamin Franklin used this pithy statement to write “‘Industry need not wish,’ as Poor Richard says, ‘and he that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains.'” Accept that wisdom of old, if you can. It is one of the true facts of life, a veritable rite of passage from childhood to maturity. Once you know this and let it affect you in constructive ways, your life is changed for the better, forever.

How strange, then, that some of the greatest philosophers of history seem to have misunderstood this truth. None other than the same Benjamin Franklin quoted above also said that “Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn at no other”. Ben, I like to think, had in mind the repetitious mistakes that fools make without even realizing it. Still, it is much too easy to interpret Ben’s words as meaning that experience is not the best kind of teacher, and that — as Ben himself obviously knew — is quite wrong.

Thomas Alva Edison, the great inventor, tried over 1,500 different materials in his incandescent light bulb before “finding” one that worked. Do not presume that Edison’s trials were merely the thoughtful, plodding analyses characteristic of great scientists. They were that, indeed, but they were also a series of mistaken “eureka” moments that didn’t work out, punctuated by some that worked but were overlooked or mistaken as flops. He failed over 1,499 times before succeeding, yet his eventual “success” was actually an earlier “failing” revisited, quite late in the process.

Edison’s technicians surely wondered what kind of fool they worked for. He harbored no delusions regarding that, and despite a notable lack of native humility, he — in an unusual display of self-deprecation — once remarked that Genius is five percent inspiration, and ninety-five percent perspiration.

Though right in this, it too is not the whole story.  Merely identifying and testing a suitable filament would not have gotten Edison to a practical light bulb. Much more perspiration, in combination with a somewhat mundane species of inspiration, had yet to be expended. It was necessary, for example, to package that filament in a hermetically-sealed chamber, surrounded by a transparent envelope, within which all but a fraction of the natural atmosphere had to be evacuated. Only after all these were combined was he able to achieve the worthwhile success he sought.

In general, it is our consciousness of the absence of something we direly need that drives us to action. If we are unconscious of such needs, or if we think such needs superfluous, we go about as Kipling’s Tomlinson — whose soul had lost its palpability — as one who had never really lived.

Kipling goes to great lengths to show the futility of trying to live one’s life from the outside, looking in. His point is that the very act of living a normal life naturally leads one, not only to make mistakes, but to willfully commit both laudable and reprehensible acts that others may judge. When Tomlinson is brought before Peter’s gate, however, he is unable to describe any of the good things he’s done. Peter summarily dismisses him as unworthy of consideration for entrance to heaven. Later, after being  carried to the depths of hell to answer for his sins, he is likewise unable to offer evidence that he’d ever actually sinned. As earlier, while standing before Peter, he could recite what he had read, heard, and thought, but not what he had actually carried out:

“O this I have read in a book,” he said, “and that was told to me. And this I have thought that another man thought of a Prince in Muscovy.”

The good souls flocked like homing doves and bade him clear the path. And Peter twirled the jangling Keys in weariness and wrath.

“Ye have read, ye have heard, ye have thought,” he said, “and the tale is yet to run: By the worth of the body that once ye had, give answer—what ha’ ye done?”

Later the devil, unlike Peter at the gate to heaven, does his level best to find good cause to allow Tomlinson entry to his fiery furnace. In desperation, he finally orders his minions to take whatever steps are necessary to expose precisely who, and what, this man had been in life:

“Over the coal they chased the Soul, and racked it all abroad. As children rifle a caddis-case or the raven’s foolish hoard.

“And back they came with the tattered Thing, as children after play. And they said: “The soul that he got from God he has bartered clean away.

“We have threshed a stook of print and book, and winnowed a chattering wind. And many a soul wherefrom he stole, but his we cannot find.

“We have handled him, we have dandled him, we have seared him to the bone, And, Sire, if tooth and nail show truth he has no soul of his own.”

They’d examined his soul through and through, and found nothing of substance, certainly nothing to justify entrance to hell. At the end of the poem, Tomlinson is returned to earth for another try at life. But, before the Devil sends him on his way, he is admonished to put his books and imaginings aside and get his hands dirty. Life is not a spectator sport. It must be lived from the inside out, as an active participant:

“Ye are neither spirit nor spirk,” he said; “ye are neither book nor brute—Go, get ye back to the flesh again for the sake of Man’s repute.

“I’m all o’er-sib to Adam’s breed that I should mock your pain, But look that ye win to a worthier sin ere ye come back again.

“Get hence, the hearse is at your door—the grim black stallions wait—They bear your clay to place to-day. Speed, lest ye come too late!

“Go back to Earth with lip unsealed—go back with open eye, And carry my word to the Sons of Men or ever ye come to die:

“That the sin they do by two and two they must pay for one by one, And . . . the God you took from a printed book be with you, Tomlinson!”

This poem establishes in verse the crucial, positive rôle that living in the present and taking all the risks that come with the bargain — quite apart from merely imagining or reading about such things — plays in our ultimate redemption.

Ah, that pregnant word redemption… Do not be misled. I write here in a restricted context, not of the redemption sought by religious zealots, but of that pursued by the common human animal who wishes only to understand and participate in life here and now, and to do it morally, ethically and propitiously.

Albert Einstein was — methinks — one such human animal. He once told his students that The only source of knowledge is experience. Here was a man who knew of excruciating loss, in many venues, having been forced to flee Hitler’s Germany in the early days of the Third Reich. In the U.S., free to pursue scientific studies without fear, he fleshed out some of his most intriguing theories on general and special relativity.

From the vacuum that Professor Einstein perceived in physics, namely the state of scientific knowledge in his day regarding the most elementary of atomic particles and the ways they interacted, he drew his greatest inspiration to seek out the mysteries of the universe. In his and many similar cases we see another side to the issue confronting us here. It is not just ours, but also the mistakes of others (whether they are perceived as such by them or not) that inspire us to greatness.

So, experience is, indeed, our best teacher, and — yes — experience rarely teaches its most sacred truths unless the experience involved is painful. Jim Horning connects everything together by quoting Mulla Nasrudin’s saying that “Good judgment comes from experience; Experience comes from bad judgment.” Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) exclaimed “There is no education like adversity.” Aristotle stated that “Learning is not child’s play: we cannot learn without pain.”

Real education is not for sissies… when we feel the hurt that comes from the process, we learn from it. John Keats commented that “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it.” Surely the poet was not speaking of successes, but of failures, for only out of the pathos of disastrous error does life paint color and depth into the great proverbs of our lives.

But, then, each experience teaches so many things… How can we know which is gold and whither is clay? Here the fools are separated from the true intellectuals as the wind winnows the chaff from the grain. Mark Twain restated Ben Franklin’s dictum in these words: “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” Ergo, we profit from our mistakes only when the pain does not paralyze us.

And for those who correctly notice that learning does not always have to be accompanied by pain, such are not idle observations. A multitude of studies have shown that pain is not an absolute necessity. In 2010, for example, Beverly Wright and a covey of her colleagues at Northwestern University concluded that combining practice  with periods of sensory stimulation effectively enhances the learning experience. Wright’s conclusions suggest that pain is only one of many excellent stimulants to learning… Yet, in reading her complicated analysis I am drawn to the simplicity of pain as — though not the only impetus — perhaps the simplest, and from all indications still the most reliable of the lot.

Oh, yes, back to Mark Twain’s cat. What can we learn from a cat? Or a squirrel, a spider, an ant, a snake, a fly, or — gasp — a worm? Plenty. Perhaps that is why I enjoy the natural world so much. In my youth it was my playground, and today it is my laboratory. Throughout my life it has been my greatest teacher, for there I make my greatest mistakes and see them magnified in the creatures I play with and study. William Wordsworth counsels, in his 1798 poem The Tables Turned, “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.” John Lubbock, in his 1894 book The Use of Life, cries Earth and Sky, Woods and Fields, Lakes and Rivers, the Mountain and the Sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”

Why is this so? Not because books are worthless, but simply because they are of necessity mere caricatures of reality. They are good to have as ready references, but nothing quite substitutes for the real thing. It is impossible to sally forth into the genuine world of nature without getting your hands dirty and making mistake after mistake after mistake. You have to DO something OUT THERE. And, as Sophocles put it, back in 442BC in his poem Antigone, All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”

What did he mean by that? Pride is the only crime? Ah, but he was right; no truer words have ever been penned throughout all of mankind’s history. It is pride that makes us wish to avoid mistakes. It is pride that makes us hide the mistakes we make. And it is pride that makes us think that wise men never make them, when the truth is that the wiser men are, the longer the string of mistakes they’ve made and profited from.

So, when you make mistakes, don’t tarry in your despair, and don’t allow pride to gut your determination to correct your course. You have just learned a valuable lesson, one well worth the cost. Lift your head, set your jaw, steady your gaze on what lies ahead, and rejoice that you are still alive enough to err! Life is good, but only when it is lived. The dead have ceased to make mistakes, but we have many walking amongst us whose spirits died long ago. Every mistake we make is proof we have not yet joined that worthless crew.

May it ever be so…

A Personal Note: I wrote the original version of this many years ago, on the heels of a disastrous series of unhappy experiences. Over the years it has given me much comfort, especially as I continued to make mistakes in life and suffer for them. It has been useful for me to remember that mistakes are good for us, and to recall the fact that only the dead avoid making them. I hope that you, who read these words, will take time to tell your feelings about this subject…



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