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Well Intended / Learning from false steps in ballet ... or with robots

Published 7:05 am, Thursday, November 21, 2013
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I was a duck in my first dance recital. At 3, we must have been cute in our shiny black tap-shoes with satin bows we could not yet tie and the frilly tutus our mothers had embellished with yellow feathers. In a row, we waddled on the stage and smiled and stomped in some kind of choreographed order while a vinyl record swirled out music from the wings and flashbulbs snapped. The audience applauded. I received a nosegay of yellow roses from my grandmother's garden tied together with ribbons and a paper doily.

My family thought I was wonderful. I didn't ask more of myself. I didn't need to.

Ballet didn't remain simple. As the years passed my expectations grew. There were steps that I would repeat countless times, making only incremental progress. Afternoons and weekends were spent in a mirrored studio where I could scrutinize my failure from all angles. Success, in the ballet studio was metered and came from analyzing mistakes and training your mind and muscles with repetition. There is no room for ego. No one steps into a ballet studio and instantly soars. Learning to dance, like learning to play an instrument, pitch a baseball or to code a program requires the ability to embrace failure and to adapt from mistakes.

I wanted to dance beautifully and to perform the steps correctly. The objective could not be accomplished with pretense. I could only improve by being receptive to failure and my own frailty. There is no ballerina who feels she has achieved perfection. And thus, failure becomes partner to success. The beauty of dance is in its appearance of effortlessness, while it's understood that sweat and toil went into every movement.

My son is on a middle-school robotics team. In preparation for a competition, they have been given a problem to solve and objectives to meet. Together, they have been tasked to design a robot to accomplish specific goals and have spent days hunched over the dining room table of their (very patient) volunteer coach. They have been working for weeks on this project and it consumes their weekends and evenings.

When their robot fails to complete the task properly, the temptation is to snatch the robot up and to make a hasty adjustment to its program. The coach reminds them to wait and analyze the problem before taking action.

It's not easy. When we fail, our egos kick in. We want to do well. We want to succeed. And so we quickly try to repair damage.

Before their program succeeds, it will fail many times. They will be frustrated. And in time, they will learn how to learn from the failures and make adjustments. They will adapt. They will ask a different question. They will seek advice from others who have more experience.

It's been a pleasure watching them learn to work together. I am only there at pick-up and drop-off and am not privy to all the back and forth and enthusiastic negotiation of the middle-school robotics team. But I see them making progress as their robot begins to achieve the goals. I see them listening to each other and humbly seeking answers.

As we embrace new activities and risk failure we develop greater resilience. We are more willing to be creative when we understand the value of failure. There are no instant experts.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: kristarichardsmann@gmail.com.