5 quotes for when you can’t let go of a mistake

I recently told you all that I often focus too hard on big goals in the far future. It’s a buzzkill. As you might imagine, it’s also a tendency goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism.

Let me be clear: I wholeheartedly recommend against perfectionism! Living in perfectionism is hardly living—life is a polished little gemstone, i.e. a pretty piece of dead matter. It’s a flaw I’ve struggled to work through and beyond, and I mean that not in an ace-the-interview sense, but truly.

To be alive, really in it, means making mistakes and embracing the often surprising paths they lead you down. To make vital art, to foster deep relationships, to do basically anything worthwhile in the world requires abandoning perfectionism entirely.

One thing that helps me on this path is seeking out mistake-ophiles among the people I admire. Below, a selection of their best advice—worthy of a place in the corner of your bathroom mirror.

“While I’m on stage, you’re all my guests, because that’s sort of like the unsaid agreement. So while you’re my guest, if something bad happens on stage — I often think of Julia Child. ‘Oh, the chicken’s fallen on the floor! Yes. Oh, well pick it up and put it right back.’ And you know what? Everybody’s with you. Because — and even if nobody’s going to touch the chicken, they’re not going to let that moment spoil their evening. They’ll remember, ‘Oh, yes, oh, remember when Julia dropped that?’ […] But, actually, that’s not why we’re here, to watch the bad things that happened. So whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose. The greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all? So it’s not about how many people are in the hall. It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.”

– Yo-Yo Ma, interviewed on On Being, 2016

“I have the urge to maybe write with my left hand, or maybe write with dirt and a stick. I use the typewriter a lot, also, because I just love the typewriter and making mistakes. I’d like to do anything that allowed me to make mistakes. Often mistakes have an ingenuousness about them: you’re just trying to do your best and it doesn’t always work out. […] You often go wrong, and then how do you find your way, allowing for the fact that you don’t know something? Not being ashamed, not being mortified, just saying: ‘Oh yeah, I got that wrong.’ The ability to be wrong, the mistakes that you make when you’re sketching, when you’re doodling, the tangents that you go on — those, to me, are thrilling. You find the true story when you do that. You don’t find the true story when everything is right. Then you’re not anywhere. Mistakes bring good.”

– Maira Kalman, interviewed in Longreads, 2015[1]

“At some point you have to accept writing bad on the way to getting good. That you can write one hundred pages and only use twenty. I’m at the stage where that is no problem for me. I’m a very sloppy writer and I don’t rewrite, I don’t reread, until I’m done. I write everything straight to the end. […] The more I second-guess, the more afraid I get. The more overcorrecting I do, the more I second-guess myself, the less risky I get. Half of the risks that are in this novel would not have happened if I stopped to think about it. […] The hardest part was keeping a lot of that because I worried that you can’t do this or it’s too risky or it’s too out on a limb. But one of the reasons why it’s a big novel is almost for the same reason you have something like a double album. Because I think — I hope, and so far some critics seem to agree with me and some critics don’t — that a bigger novel is a wider canvas to experiment with. And even if the experiment fails, it’s such a big canvas that there’s enough to recommend it otherwise.”

– Marlon James, interviewed in Guernica, 2014

“[T]he job of the critic is to be wrong. I think it’s much better to have my mistakes corrected by other people than to try to correct them myself. […C]riticism or reviewing is a present tense, very in the moment thing. Part of what we’re doing is the opposite of a definitive judgment. It’s a very early, very provisional, kind of putting down a marker and initiating something that’s going to go on for a very long time. I read some of my favorite critics, like Susan Sontag or Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, and over the course of their careers they were wildly inconsistent.”

– A.O. Scott, interviewed in Slate, 2016[2]

“A writer can’t control the reception of one’s work or the perception of its author—as much as one would like to. You just have to put on your helmet and boots and get out your pen. At some point, to some extent, what is both right and wrong with your work is what’s right and wrong with you. What is in it is what’s in you—and that’s if it’s going well.”

– Lorrie Moore, interviewed in The Believer, 2005