Making Mistakes and the Perfection of Trying Again

Not long ago a friend sent along a note and a quote. The note read "In our room, perfection with be a stranger and vulnerability our friend." The quote was from jazz great Miles Davis.

Do not fear mistakes - there are none.

The note was funny for obvious reasons (or maybe the typo was intentional to subtly cement a point), but it was important, too, for it was discussed in a local elementary school classroom and this next generation is every hope we have.

Sadly I was not privy to the conversation itself, being some years removed from elementary school, although now and again certain fussy people suggest I am eminently qualified to return. But you don't need to sit around an elementary school carpet to know that perfection is very much a standard in our world, which is why I so like both the thoughts of the communal carpet and Miles Davis regarding the matter.

We live in a world that strives for, and glorifies, the achievement of perfection, perhaps at some cost. I once stood outside a third grade classroom listening to a parent tell me their Student of the Month would one day attend Stanford University. This shocks no one. We are all familiar with driven parents driving their children. Formerly (I don't do it any more: I have learned my lesson), on the rare occasion when I questioned whether a third grader even knew what Stanford was (or had considered the economics of going there), I was sternly informed that it is a ruthlessly competitive world and only the best survive. Never too early to think about the future. Plan or perish. Accept nothing less than perfection. If I was bold enough to mention that the child was eight, I was reprimanded for my Peter Pan attitude.

Once, after one such foolish mention, a mother glared at me.

What are you doing at an elementary school in the middle of the afternoon anyhow?

Well, planning to play wall ball with my sons.

The woman didn't voice it directly, but the inference was clear. A man in his (then) mid-forties shouldn't be standing in an elementary school hallway at two in the afternoon. He should be out in the world striving for perfection, perhaps well along in captaining a ship of commerce toward a Fortune 500 berth. Maybe she was angry because she had hoped I would lend her money when her child got into Stanford, but there are few dollars, though much reward, in wall ball with happy third graders. And I must say I achieved a modicum of success in the wall ball arena, although I fell short of perfection.

We celebrate the winner. We console second place. One word. Sochi Olympics. Wait. That's two words. My mistake. Or is it a mistake? Either way, second in the world never seemed a consolation prize to me.

I like Miles Davis because he created soulful music, but I also like him because he provides us carte blanche to make mistakes, and I have made many.

Maybe the emphasis on perfection is more strident these days because there are so many of us. To rise above the ever-swelling crowd of humanity requires nothing less than perfection. The sticking point here is obvious. Which is why, when my friend sent me Miles Davis's quote, I decided to share it with you in this column. Because being human means being a vessel of imperfection. Because being human isn't about achieving perfection, it's about running aground. And running aground isn't always a mistake.

As a book writer of (very) moderate success, I am occasionally approached by those who are also writing books. Sometimes they tell me they have finished their book, and as they say this I see it in their eyes. They shrug. They look down at their feet. They are reluctant to publish their book, they say softly, because it's not quite perfect. They still need to tinker. The more honest writers also give voice to another problem. What if people don't like what they've written?

They are so very vulnerable.

Aren't we all? I worry about my editor liking this column. I worry about you liking this column. I worry about my books being liked. I worry about the words being perfect. And I do my best writing when I give a friendly nod to these worries and just move ahead.

In our room, perfection with be a stranger and vulnerability our friend.

Yes, the typo is intentional.

One of my favorite sayings is a Chinese proverb. I'm betting Miles Davis would have liked it too.

Fall down seven times get up eight.

It's one of my favorite sayings because, along with being easy to remember, it applies to almost everything in life. Plus - here I am being vulnerable - I fall down a lot. It is not easy being a writer. There are many setbacks. I have experienced a degree of success, but it is still very much an everyday struggle. I have doubts. I have readers (yes some of them are friends, and one of them is a lover) who believe in me. They tell me I am going to be a best-selling author. They tell me my words stir them, and that the stirrings matter. They tell me I am not perfect (especially the lover, because she knows me well, although she is very loving in the telling), but they tell me that sometimes the words are close.

This is what I strive for every time I search for words and stories. I like to think Miles Davis did the same thing with musical notes.

I plan on making what some see as mistakes, but I plan on getting up.

I will be perfect at it.

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Once, after one such foolish mention, a mother glared at me.

"What are you doing at an elementary school in the middle of the afternoon anyhow?"

"Well, planning to play wall ball with my sons," I responded.

The woman didn't voice it directly, but the inference was clear. A man in his (then) mid-forties shouldn't be standing in an elementary school hallway at two in the afternoon. He should be out in the world striving for perfection, perhaps well along in captaining a ship of commerce toward a Fortune 500 berth. Maybe she was angry because she had hoped I would lend her money when her child got into Stanford. But there are few dollars -- though much reward -- in wall ball with happy third graders. And I must say I achieved a modicum of success in the wall ball arena, although I fell short of perfection.

We celebrate the winner. We console second place. One word. Sochi Olympics. Wait. That's two words. My mistake. Or is it a mistake? Either way, second in the world never seemed a consolation prize to me.

I like Miles Davis because he created soulful music, but I also like him because he provides us carte blanche to make mistakes, and I have made many.

Maybe the emphasis on perfection is more strident these days because there are so many of us. To rise above the ever-swelling crowd of humanity requires nothing less than perfection. The sticking point here is obvious. Which is why, when my friend sent me Miles Davis's quote, I decided to share it with you in this column. Because being human means being a vessel of imperfection. Because being human isn't about achieving perfection, it's about running aground. And running aground isn't always a mistake.

As a book writer of (very) moderate success, I am occasionally approached by those who are also writing books. Sometimes they tell me they have finished their book, and as they say, this I see it in their eyes. They shrug. They look down at their feet. They are reluctant to publish their book, they say softly, because it's not quite perfect. They still need to tinker. The more honest writers also give voice to another problem. What if people don't like what they've written?

They are so very vulnerable.

Aren't we all? I worry about my editor liking this column. I worry about you liking this column. I worry about my books being liked. I worry about the words being perfect. And I do my best writing when I give a friendly nod to these worries and just move ahead.

"In our room, perfection with be a stranger and vulnerability our friend."

Yes, the typo is intentional.

One of my favorite sayings is a Chinese proverb. I'm betting Miles Davis would have liked it, too.

"Fall down seven times, get up eight."

It's one of my favorite sayings because, along with being easy to remember, it applies to almost everything in life. Plus -- here I am being vulnerable -- I fall down a lot. It is not easy being a writer. There are many setbacks. I have experienced a degree of success, but it is still very much an everyday struggle. I have doubts. I have readers (yes, some of them are friends, and one of them is a lover) who believe in me. They tell me I am going to be a best-selling author. They tell me my words stir them, and that the stirrings matter. They tell me I am not perfect (especially the lover, because she knows me well, although she is very loving in the telling), but they tell me that sometimes the words are close.

This is what I strive for every time I search for words and stories. I like to think Miles Davis did the same thing with musical notes.

I plan on making what some see as mistakes, but I plan on getting up.

I will be perfect at it.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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