Getting it wrong before getting it right

One of the things that frustrates me most about writing—or creating anything, really—is the way that you—I—never get it right the first time. Not-getting-it-right is built into the process: whatever I’m working on is continuously wrong, or gradually-and-marginally-less-wrong, until finally, near the very end, it’s right (enough), and therefore Done! NEXT!

I like being right. I hate being wrong. Creating means spending a lot of time hanging out in the not-right zone. Bleah!

It’s one of the main reasons I get immobilized. You can say all you want, “Go ahead, just write a terrible first draft” (and believe me, I always write lousy first drafts, and second and third ones too), but I find this aspect of creativity nearly intolerable. I hate committing to a choice—a word, a sentence, an organizing principle—knowing I will just have to change it later.

Yet this is how ideas get refined. I revisit them, rework them, see how they relate to each other, begin to see what’s more or less important, find new relationships, decide what’s a tangent and what’s core, eliminate the excess. Did I mention that I hate that this is how the process works? It’s excruciating to me.

After coming across the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, I’m beginning to understand my reaction a little better. Dweck has done research into the difference between performance goals (“I did great! I’m smart and talented! Reward me!”) and learning goals (“I persisted and eventually got there! Yay!”)  As the proverbial A-student, I grew up (happily) performance-focused, rewarded for consistently Getting It Right. This works fine until you hit a setback. Performance-focused A-student types never learn to manage the frustration of Getting It Wrong. Their (my) approach is: “There is a Right Way, and the goal is to get to the Right Way sooner. Wrongness is unacceptable and a big waste of time!” The kid who’s rewarded for persistence rather than performance thinks, “Oh, I love a problem! If I keep working at it, I’ll figure it out.”

“I love a problem”? This attitude is completely alien to me. In my mind, “I don’t know how” leads automatically to “Therefore, I cannot.” My progress is continually throttled by the emotional conviction that “No answer YET” equals “There IS no answer.”

And really, almost all of life is about Not Yet. The moments of “Got it!” are brief and fleeting. So it would be useful to learn tolerance and appreciation for Not Yet.

A scientist I’m acquainted with heard my description of creativity-as-successive-iterations-of-not-rightness and told me, “That’s how science works: Asking successively better questions. It’s a cumulative process.” I like the word “cumulative.” It suggests not that things are wrong-wrong-wrong-until-Bing! they’re OK, but rather that I’m building on my work so that it keeps getting better.

Tolerating not-rightness is a learned behavior, and I don’t know (yet) how to learn it. I have some ideas, though. And I’m persisting.


  1. Crystal says:

    IMO, being innately drawn to the scientific method and logic problems when I was a kid kept me from being completely performance-oriented, even though I was one of the aforementioned A students, too. Meaning I inherently love to solve problems and learn, even if the world was rewarding me for performing instead. 😉

    What frustrates me is looking back and seeing all the opportunities I didn’t even know I had because the people around me were busy doing what you describe: rewarding me for what I’d already done, not for working toward the future. Oddly enough, as a “smart kid,” it’s taken me years to figure out some things that other kids had explained to them explicitly … because people thought I had it together already, so it didn’t occur to anybody that I needed some things explained.

    It’s weird talking to people I went to high school with and finding out that *because* they looked like they needed help with their lives, they were outright told things I’ve had to figure out on my own. It kind of makes me feel like I’m actually the non-A-student: I may have been English Student of the Year, but people I know who failed English have known what a mortgage is and how it works for a decade longer than I have. And kids who looked like they were going to be aimless forever were encouraged (even ordered ;)) to follow their passions into careers — while I looked like I had an easy life path planned out already, I guess, so no one ever encouraged me to do it … and I got the idea that I shouldn’t do what I love because my passions are all things people around me considered non-profitable, or “lesser” jobs.

    Anyway. 😉 I’d love to see a reworking of our overall attitudes toward learning and teaching. It’d be great for people to grow up able to recognize correctness AND able to value the more gradual processes of discovering knowledge and creating worthwhile things. Alas for that desire for instant gratification…

  2. Wow! You’ve really nailed it. I’m just like you: an A-student. I like being RIGHT, dammit. The not-rightness of intermediate steps is positively excruciating for me.

    When people find out I’m an artist they say “oh you must have so much FUN painting all the time.” Nope, it’s not fun, it’s WORK, it’s extremely hard work, and I’m never happy until the painting is finished. So I spend most of my time being unhappy with my work.

    And now I understand why! This is a huge revelation for me. Thank you so much for shining a light on a lifelong pattern!

  3. Jessica says:

    I have so much trouble with this! I can’t even remember all the things I haven’t done simply because I didn’t think I was good at it. But how are you supposed to be good at something until you try it, work at it and get proficient?

    I was also an A student – certain things (that were valued by teachers and parents) came easily to me but I’ve always been frustrated that I didn’t have my mother’s artistic talent (that my brother’s inherited). But I’m coming to discover that I’m much more creative than I gave myself credit for. Now that I’m more willing to try something – and be bad at it – I’m having a lot more fun with my creativity. And applying it to other areas of my life (not just hobbies). I’m also learning to enjoy the journey to proficiency – the learning process itself and not feeling like I’m not allowed to be happy until I’m “good” at something before I can enjoy it.

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Crystal: How frustrating to miss opportunities because of other people’s assumptions! And yes, it seems like the best educators facilitate the process of discovery along with the skill to recognize when (and why) something is correct (or enough, or ready).

    @Barbara: You’re welcome—happy to hear this shed some light!

    @Jessica: Being willing to be bad at things leaves a lot more room for creativity and fun—so I’m told. 😉 Yay for enjoying the journey to proficiency, not just the end goal.

  5. Nellig says:

    Thanks for articulating this. It’s a big help.

  6. Rose says:

    I know this so well. I’m studying Psychology at University and I was just reading about Dweck and goal vs. performance last night, in preparation for lectures on it this week.

    I’m definitely performance-focused, which isn’t that useful when you go from being in the top half at school to “average” at University. I also suck at losing board games 😛

    I think this needs to be expressed more (so parents and peers can help people become more goal-orientated).

    Thanks for sharing it,

  7. Janet Bailey says:

    @Nellig – Thanks for stopping by!

    @Rose – Ha, I take losing at board games a leetle bit too seriously myself. Glad you mentioned peers—as well as parents—this reminds me to be aware of the kind of praise I give people.

  8. Alex Tagus says:

    I love all the articles that Janet had written. This one is really my favorite and indeed very realistic.

    Well, most of the time, before you make something right, of course you have to make some mistakes. It’s like an equation in Math, wherein before you got the right value, you have to do a trial and error process. Well not all equations in Math are like that =)

    Anyways, we all learn from our mistakes. Learning from them makes us a better and more mature person =)

    Alex Tagus

  9. Janet Bailey says:

    @Alex – Like math, only messier!

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