Intentional Errors

I am currently learning to swim from the basics up.1 Before I started, I fell into kind of a weird category of being very comfortable in water, but not being able to swim freestyle literally at all. Like literally. I knew what it should look like in theory, but I kept sinking. I could tread water for ages, and move myself across the pool in a motion that looks vaguely similar to breaststroke, but I couldn’t swim quickly at all.

i’m the little white one: “guys guys i’m doing it!”

When I was growing up, one of my favorite things to do was to swim across the Deschutes in Maupin, which is famous for exactly one thing: whitewater rafting. I went to the pool all the time, swam in the ocean…I was not a drowning risk. I assume that’s how I somehow missed the somewhat fundamental skill of swimming in a way that will get you somewhere quickly.

But, anyway, people give me a lot of credit for being able to pick up new skills really, really quickly, to the point that they usually don’t believe I was actually a beginner.2 And I think that’s because one of the things I’m really good at is learning new things. Honestly, that might be my one true talent. One big component of that is that a diversity of interests and experiences gives you way more relevant experiences to map new experiences on to. Obviously, this is true of languages, because languages have a common goal, and only so many ways to get there. But it’s super useful for basically everything in life. I am such a dilettante that when someone says, “kick this way when you’re swimming,” I can look at that, say “it’s basically a really small barre lift, but fast,” and then use that as a basis for something new. So that’s my first cheat for learning new things quickly: build new things from old things.

But my second cheat, which I think is really why I’m better at this than a lot of people, is maybe less obvious. You will gain so much more when you’re trying to learn something new by screwing it up than by getting it right. And, especially for something practice based like swimming, you don’t have to wait for organic mistakes. You can make mistakes intentionally, then figure out how to fix them. So, for example: I’m supposed to be practicing rotating in the water, and I spend like half my time on doing that right.3 But I spend the other half on every single “disaster scenario” I can think of relating to that. What if I end up with my arms in the wrong place? What if I’m sinking? What if I skew way out of line? What if I accidentally do a barrel roll? And so on. Make intentional mistakes and let yourself figure out how to fix them.

It’s obvious how this works with a physical skill, but it’s true of things you wouldn’t expect too. Like, you probably don’t notice how you fix sentences as you’re speaking them, how every sentence is a “leap of faith” as they say. Well, that’s a skill you can work on in foreign languages too. How do you get from what you started to say to the end you wanted? How do you talk around that word you forgot? Trying to speak perfectly will make it so you can’t speak at all. Or, say you’re learning calligraphy? How do you take a blotch and recover? With fiction: find some text you hate and fix it. Doesn’t even have to be your own text. Because there will come a day when you’ve written something you hate, and you’re going to need all the tools in the house to fix it. Even the weird proprietary tools you bought for fixing the dishwasher.

Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy. Don’t drown.

  1. …which, by the way, is not super fun as an adult. Teach your kids to swim.
  2. No adult is really a beginner at anything, honestly, so I’m not sure what that means in this context.
  3. Oh, third cheat: throw a ridiculous amount of purposeful time into anything new. Time is experience.