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A Cult of Error: Excellence Is the Greatest Obstacle to Genius


In the long run, you’ll learn much more from mistakes than from perfect, predictable results.

We live at a time when excellence is required in our every endeavor. In virtually any human domain, quality controls are imposed on our work, art, and even on human relationships (like when we’re asked to rate ourselves on happiness or emotional intelligence indexes). The situation resembles nothing more than the quality controls applied to a series of products.

But people aren’t serial products. The cult of excellence and individual achievement may overshadow the anomalies and particularities which, to some large extent, make up the very appeal of genius.

For Eric Weinstein, mathematician and economist, genius is incompatible with a society that tries to measure the achievements of all its members by the same criteria.

One of his examples is that of musicians. According to Weinstein, when we listen to a piece of classical music, we hope the musicians will interpret it perfectly, and with no faults. But when we listen to jazz, imperfection and improvisation are part of the enjoyment of the piece.

The discoveries and daring of Miles Davis and his band on Kind of Blue would have been impossible under the parameters set for classical musicians. For Weinstein, even small errors and imperfections of interpretation confer both charm and grandeur to the recording. It was, after all, Miles Davis who said, “the toughest critic I got, and the only one I worry about, is myself.”

The problem with the culture of excellence is not that we’re required to continually be better and to surpass ourselves. The problem is that it’s a power structure in which criteria (like physical beauty or financial success) for measuring individual achievement are insufficient to appreciate the variety of human possibility.

For Weinstein, the problem with excellence is that it excludes those,

…who don’t function within that idiom feel that they are somehow abhorrent and less than, when, in fact, these are the people who are going to cure our cancers… who are going to create new multi-billion-dollar industries.

This brings up the problem of the capacitism into which a culture of excellence forces people: psychiatric disorders multiply, children are medicated, diagnosed as being too active, or for not paying attention in class, and all while the broader society is unable to recognize the fact that all of us don’t learn in the same ways.

The common notion of “genius” is of a different, gifted individual who solves problems better than anyone else. But to identify genius in people and communities, we need to leave room enough to make mistakes and to learn from them, and to realize that genius is everywhere.

As an economist, Weinstein well understands the logic of cost/benefit: it’s impossible to know if an idea is good or bad unless it’s put into practice. What genius does is “to take on risk, to take on costs, doing things that make almost no sense to anyone else.”

In short, if we want innovative solutions, we need to admit that error and the harsh teaching of error need to be part of the way forward. Unfortunately, excellence and the culture that promotes excellence, often leave aside the importance of being wrong. After all, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident, having left a culture growing in his laboratory when he went on vacation.


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