Fail to learn (a personal confession)

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I hate making mistakes. Worse than that, I fear making mistakes. The realisation that I’ve made an error – or sometimes, just the thought that I might have made an error – is enough to bring on pinpricks of sweat, an urge to run away, and a noticeable loss of composure.

It goes back to school. In school, the aim is to try to be as good as possible, which means aiming for perfection. Top grades are acceptable (preferably the top grade), but a 100% score is even better – one reason why maths is such an appealing subject at that age. Mistakes are things to be feared, abhorred, and avoided.

My least favourite subject at school was French. The main reason? Mistakes were unavoidable. There were just so many things you could get wrong – the spelling, the pronunciation, the combination of words, the meaning. Every exercise was a minefield of potential humiliation. Not surprisingly, I dropped it as early as I could.

What I realise now though, is that language classes are probably the best psychological preparation you can have for a career in research.

Why? Because to succeed in both you need to embrace the mistakes. You need to seek them out, analyse them, understand them – and only then can you correct them. And once you’ve made that correction, you are far, far less likely to make the same mistake again. Not only that, but you’ve probably achieved a richer appreciation of what you were trying to understand for the effort of having thought through it. Try to avoid mistakes, and you end up doing nothing at all.

It’s one of the best examples of the way that a successful school career (or a highly theoretical degree) does not prepare you for life at the research bench at all. When you are operating at the absolute limit of human knowledge, developing new techniques or developing new theories, or going completely into the unknown, it is almost impossible to avoid errors. They’re part and parcel of the daily routine. If you’re frightened of getting things wrong, you will very quickly corral yourself into a safe and familiar little ghetto and industriously go round in circles, only adding morsels to what you knew already. Only by being unafraid of mistakes, by accepting them as the stepping stones to more profound knowledge, can you really advance your project at speed. It’s also the key mentality for broadening your skill set and your expertise in other areas like teaching and organisation.

I try to. I really do. But that brainwashing from school days keeps coming back, keeps nagging at me. I can’t be as fearless as I’d like to be. And I know I’d be a better scientist if I could master that fear of being wrong. If I could accept that by making mistakes, by failing – I’m learning.

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