“My mom told me you’re gonna be a beer-shaker,” Calla said before biting into her peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Calla and her sister June are ten-year-old twins I babysit when I am home. They love Greek mythology, make-believe stories about dancers and duchesses, and Roblox. Unlike so many of us above the age of ten, they are unafraid of the unfamiliar.
They inspire me. So I decided to learn how to mix drinks.
Shaking beer was not one of our lessons. Instead, after a week in bartending school, we had covered sours, classics, teas, shots, Manhattans, and martinis. When we learned how to make a shot called a blowjob, my teacher Jim placed two bottles on the table. Frangelico wore a monkish cincture tassel, and the Amaretto stood beside it, short and stout. “If you ever forget what’s in this shot,” Jim said, “just remember: Little boy blowing the priest.” It was just a glimpse into the irreverence that made the class so different from my everyday life, so novel and so fun.
The students were an eclectic mix. Several college kids, a dropout, a rancher from the Texas Hill Country, and a hotel waiter mixed margaritas—with dyed water and plastic limes—next to me. For all our differences, we shared one thing: We arrived having no idea what we were doing. The awkwardness of counting our pours was permissible from day one. Beginners enjoy the freedom to spill milk—or, in this case, make-believe vodka—and not cry over it precisely because disaster is inevitable. These harmless mishaps are part of the excitement that comes with being a novice.
My dad and I had a running joke on college visits. On each new campus, he would point out a student doing something playful and useless, and say “college.” Students easing into warrior one in a yoga class: “college.” A pair playing table tennis: “college.” Bingo night: “college.” For many, college is a place to start from scratch, and become what one never was in high school—an avid performer, a yogi, an extrovert. From cultivating a new demeanor to changing the way we spend our free time, college is a natural moment to explore the parts of ourselves we were always too embarrassed or scared to debut.
That word explore is an elevated way to describe what it’s like to be shitty at something. Screw up, slip up, fuck up—these are among the more common descriptions of those moments when the human in us comes out to knock us down a peg or two. Before we get to Nora’s near disaster, consider that her screw up was at Princeton, a place where, for those interested, opportunities to fail abound. Nora, a sophomore, made a mistake that was less a fuck up and more of a royal drop. Often, the most interesting discoveries come from a tangent, a swerve, the moment of panic that comes after falling several meters in the air.
When Nora and her friend Lucia became curious about one of these niches, this one located at Princeton’s rock wall, they were quickly consoled by the fact that most everyone else was also a beginner. They linked themselves together with rope, harnesses, and carabiner clips. Lucia climbed, relying on Nora’s support from the ground. Each step seemed a matter of course. Then, Nora dropped Lucia. It was a Free Solo-style drop with campus-style liability. The rope became taut, catching the climber only after a few feet of terror. After a startling reality check of Nora’s skill level, Lucia was left shaken but unscathed. And probably, also, laughing. Nora didn’t get belay certified that day. But she tried again a week later and passed, going from novice mountaineer to trusty belayer. Up she went.
Kathryn Schulz is a writer for the The New Yorker who is more interested in the downs than the ups. She acknowledges that while being right feels great and being wrong seems like failure, the hidden benefits–and even pleasures–of getting things wrong are underappreciated. The main insight that stuck with me from her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (reading it will reveal many, many more), is that expertise is static. When we face the suspense of not knowing, we open ourselves up to change. That’s why wrongness, threatening as it is to the way we think about the world, ourselves—the whole institution of capital T “Truth”—is more terrifying and more interesting than saying I know. Keeping Schulz in the back of my mind greased my philosophical gears as I listened to people talk—rave, even—about moments of failure. Our secret need to fail, Schulz compelled me, is the reason Sid had endless things to say about his screw ups in debate, and much less to say about his skill at it.
Perhaps acuity, so tethered to the way we define ourselves, is exactly why winning a debate is so exhilarating for Sid. But losing was just as exhilarating and far more transformative. Sid started debating in high school as part of a personal quest to conquer his fear of public speaking. A minute into his first ever speech, he committed the debate equivalent of dropping a climber: He choked. It was so humiliating he got teary. But he managed to get through his second speech, composed and even confident. He recognized that while he was worse than his peers, he was good for a total beginner. This sense of relative rightness motivated him, generating excitement about a totally unexpected,yet perfectly plausible, trajectory of improvement. It put him in a wonderful place that, in our preoccupation with expertise, we too easily overlook: On the cusp of being great. What’s so exciting about this beginner-specific feeling of accomplishment is that it is contingent precisely on our capacity to err.
The possibility one senses on this cusp transformed Sid’s nightmare into his obsession. In order to be right in public, he rehearsed wrongness in private, debating with his reflection in the mirror on a nightly basis. And it worked. While his humility keeps him from admitting to be the best debater in high school, Sid acknowledges that he was “in the top two or three.”
But, as anyone who comes to Princeton knows, talent is relative. Sid’s rank plummeted here—a descent which, at first, discouraged him. He almost quit after debate tryouts because he had the intimidating experience of overhearing the contestant who went before him. After four years of greatness, he suddenly had to face his newfound relative mediocrity—and with that, a heightened awareness of (yet again) being wrong.
Moored to his obsession, Sid, after making the team and perhaps more impressively, sticking with it, thrived. His (adjusted) status stimulated his improvement. And improvement was intoxicating. Back at square one, debate felt novel again. Sid had come full circle—or rather, full spiral—as he rekindled the excitement of discovering a new passion. Trading pride for curiosity, he started asking questions to varsity members about any term or skill he was unfamiliar with. “The feeling of improvement,” Sid told me, “is addictive.” That’s something experts can’t say. Such an arc is contingent on an endless fascination with error.
Hearing more about the daily grind of a Princeton debater made me feel even more embarrassed—-and also supremely proud—of my own (failed) debate tryout. Although the Princeton debate team may be particularly gatekept, and rightly so (selectivity, in this case, yields excellent results), the scariness of entering an unfamiliar environment, one in which everyone is far more skilled than you, is just part of what makes us human. Even better, an adventurous one.
Debaters speak with conviction, confident—at least for the five minutes they are talking—in the verity of their claims. But when it comes to learning a language, successful communication involves much more stumbling and groping. Language learners speak not with conviction but with shamelessness, always hoping that the listener will be patient and understanding. I think of my embarrassment—and with time, delight—at my humiliating swap of the words pollo (chicken) and polla (dick). A classic mix-up, one of the many that ensues when communication, not yet intuitive, is necessarily improvised. Learning a language puts us in the unique position of knowing that we are very likely wrong and being forced to speak despite that knowledge. This awkward gap between knowing you are wrong and desperately wanting to be right gives rise to humility, but also, when you shed your reverence for perfection, the bliss of screwing up. Making oneself understood produces the unique pleasure that comes from sensing the infinite potential of words in all their combinations. Linguistic mistakes multiply these possibilities, creating phrases that produce confusion, hilarity, creativity, and a verbal dance that connects us as much as it scrambles us. How boring—how predictable—would conversations be if we spoke without error?
Every language learner has a story where embarrassment yields revelation. For Dom, who has climbed the ranks from Spanish 101 to 204, one story he remembers has to do with “men of fire.” Dom didn’t know how to say “fireman.” Hombre de fuego, he figured, would get the point across. Linguistic blind spots expose the brain’s capacity to innovate. While such adaptations delight us in private, when they happen onstage, one would rather stay on-script. When Dom decided to practice Spanish in the more consequential setting of the theater, the stakes of his amateurism seemed higher.
The advertisement for the play—the second he had ever acted in—insisted that Spanish level did not matter. Prospective actors had only to be (1) Latino and (2) interested in the opportunity. Check and check. Dom thus dove into double-noviceship, developing his limited acting experience in a foreign language. He arrived at the first read-through relying on the option to read his part from the English translation Fuenteovejuna, a play written by Lope de la Vega.
Despite the ad’s claim, all the other actors were obviously fluent. Dom, however, was far from fluent at this point, and on top of that, he was coming fresh from a dentist appointment during which the doctor injected several hundred milligrams of Novocaine into his gums. Howa me awo Dom. With that, his career as un actor was underway.
Dom’s first instinct was to downplay his proficiency. Uncomfortable as it can feel, being a novice—and owning that status—can also protect us. A novice threatens no one and thus flatters all. And everyone loves to be flattered. If others understood that Dom was still learning Spanish, he figured, they would adjust their expectations accordingly. They might even help him.
Dom worked hard to perfect his lines. Because the language of the play was not yet intuitive, Dom had to plan his every expression, movement, and cue. In this way, he had to adjust his acting techniques to the attention that learning lines in Spanish demanded. How well Dom performed both skills—one theatrical and the other linguistic—depended on his comfort with each one. The combination of mutually reinforcing challenges, in addition to his desire to meet the expectations of his cast members, led to exponential improvement. Something clicked. The following semester, Spanish 107 was a breeze.
A mistake onstage could have cost Dom his pride, but another story Dom told me revealed higher stakes—namely, a man’s survival. Spanish class is a relatively safe environment for error. An ambulance is not. Once, when Dom was working as an EMT, he was ordered to suction a man’s throat. He had done this procedure before, but only on a dummy. His rehearsal culminated in a terrifying performance. The supervisor in the ambulance had an intensity that made admitting a lack of skill or experience seem intimidating—or even embarrassing. Dom didn’t want to lose his job or the respect he had among his coworkers by admitting that he really was only comfortable performing an operation on the all-forgiving, dumb and numb dummy. So he stayed quiet and went through the motions—luckily, although nervous, skilled enough to be successful. He ultimately executed the suctioning well. Perhaps he felt on fuego. More likely, he was just relieved. By no means did Dom expect a standing ovation, but this story illustrates the way an environment’s rejection or endorsement of amateurism determines disaster or success.
Environment matters, and in this case Dom was the victim of a bad one. Learning to accept wrongdoing—and ideally, celebrate it—will enable everyone to be more honest about their abilities. Fear of rejection is what explains why arguments so often put us on the defensive, why we’re so quick to say “I told you so” and so slow to admit wrongdoing. For all the merit error deserves, it is worth acknowledging that it can be dangerous. Endorsing mistakes, paradoxically, has the power to prevent them in the most precarious of situations.
It is probably unfair to say that all ballroom teachers are more forgiving than EMT supervisors. One man’s ambulance patient is another man’s cha cha. But James, a freshman at Southern Methodist University, benefitted from a more relaxed attitude, and the environment it created, at his first ever ballroom class. He was one of two beginners in a class of twenty.
He spent the first ten minutes of class by himself, people-watching. He spent the next ten minutes with an expert waltzer. She left him for someone on par, and James danced the bulk of that hour away with the instructor, who went back and forth between James’ arms and the front of class, where he would clarify the steps—and missteps. During these intervals of instruction James made his humility obvious. He raised his hands when the instructor called attention to a certain error. “Yep, that’s me,” he would say. He caught the instructor’s attention, widening his eyes and exhaling in mild, mock frustration at new and intricate choreography. This banter continued as, bit by bit, the waltz became muscle memory, and then the tango steps, and then it was time to switch partners.
One of the students he danced with was particularly encouraging. “I usually hate this word but in this situation, it was endearing,” James told me. “This girl goes, ‘Slay,’ and high-fived me.”
After five minutes of his report to me over FaceTime, James figured it would be more efficient to just show me the steps. He tangoed across his dorm room, skating from mini-fridge to coatrack to bunk bed to shelf. Slay, I thought.
Hearing about Nora’s brush with liability and Sid’s late-night debates with the mirror, Dom’s sleepy gums and James’s two left feet, one pattern was clear: Commitment yields improvement. But learning a new skill requires us to worship error more than we worship expertise. While an expert knows what is coming next, a beginner tangoes, babbles and belays into the unknown, giddy and relishing in the awkwardness and delight of the unfamiliar. The experience of trying something new and risking failure is both titillating and terrifying. It’s a lot like getting lost.
Schulz makes a similar comparison between error and a toddler in the thrall of a brand new life. She writes that, as children lost in the middle of Times Square, “most of us eventually manage to look up from the despair of wrongness and feel something of a child’s wonder at the vastness and mystery of the world”. Messing up warps our sense of direction, at the same time exposing fascinating corners of the world—and ourselves—that we didn’t know existed. Schulz writes, “Eventually, too, we get our act together and go explore that big new space—the one outside us, but also the one within us”. Perhaps this moment of disillusionment and thrill is where commitment starts—but only after a stumble and fall in that strange and beautiful space of curiosity, excitement, and, one hopes, laughter.
Every person I talked to improved through a consistent—even desperate—commitment. But they also had to flirt and flounder before achieving some level of confidence. This space of limbo remodels what we think about the world and ourselves in ways that are sometimes terrifying (see gasping ambulance man), sometimes hilarious, and always transformative. That’s no surprise. What is more notable is that all that staggering added up to more than the expertise to which it aimed. Error facilitates a metamorphosis of sorts, a great shake-up of who we are and what we do. This turbulence humbles us as much as it smooths out edges. We have to do the hokey-pokey and be that child, mouth agape in the middle of Times Square, to figure out what it even means to be a college student, a young adult, a human. So go forth, lovers of excellence, and shake things up.