The Good Life – The Fine Art of Making Mistakes

I have a friend who teaches high school math. Every year on the first day of school he asks his students in each grade to pack away their pocket calculators and try to work out a mental problem. He tells them to imagine that they are in a rowboat on a lake, and they are holding a rock that weighs one hundred grams. The water beneath the boat is thirty metres deep. He asks them to work out how long it will take that rock to sink to the bottom of the lake. Every year, he says, he is met by blank stares and complete silence.

Of course, there’s no earthly way to know how long it would take for that rock to reach bottom. There are far too many variables–the density and turbidity of the water, the shape and composition of the rock, possible turbulence. What he wants them to do is make a guess. He prompts them: would it take an hour? Twenty minutes? A second? Still, it’s always some time before somebody is brave enough to answer. I don’t blame them, because I would have been silent myself at that age.

The point he’s driving at, of course, is that we’ve largely lost our vital ability to make educated guesses, a loss that is being reinforced and accentuated by technology. We’re so used to being able to plug in the factors of an equation and having the answer rapidly calculated for us that we’ve become strangers to the valuable tools of estimation and judgment. Intuition is being made extinct by the desire for easy, accurate answers.

My friend, who knows he is at risk of sounding like a romantic old fogey, wonders what harm this is doing to our species. I agree. Intuition and inspiration–the ability to extrapolate, to read between the lines and colour outside the box–are like any other facet of our bodies and our brains: if we get out of the habit of using them, we’ll lose them.

Without the benefit of supercomputers, pocket calculators, or even slide rules, our ancient ancestors built wonderfully accurate solar and lunar calendars, erected magnificent temples and pyramids, and speculated with considerable insight about the movement of the planets. If it wasn’t for the human willingness to make guesses, to conjecture and be proved wrong, we would never have progressed very far in the fields of architecture, physics or medicine. We would never have developed penicillin or landed a man on the moon.

The fact is, imagination and intuition are immensely important in the fields of art, mathematics, science and every day living. We use them when we’re painting a picture, composing a sonnet, playing a trumpet solo, resolving a parenting problem, or buying enough fresh fish and vegetables to feed the group of twelve that we’ve invited over for dinner tonight.

So, in the hopes of doing his little bit to reverse this loss, my friend paraphrases for his students the tag line from a children’s TV show called The Magic School Bus. When it comes to succeeding in the real world, he tells them, you need to have a willingness to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.”

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