To “listen with the ear of your heart” means to listen with a willingness to change.
Vibrato: The Secret of Getting it Right
Jonah, age two, stood at the block table in the Frick Museum in Nashville piling up blocks trying one combination after another. It looked like he was playing “Blockhead,” except that rather than piling them up one at a time, he held two blocks together, then tried to put them on top of the first stack of two. He tried all different combinations of shapes—two rectangles end to end, a square and a triangle, a flat and a cylinder, and so on.
What neural networks was he building? Did he have a vision? Was he exploring the properties of each shape? Was he working on his eye-hand coordination? Was he exploring the relationship between the geometric center of an object and its center of gravity? From watching children over the years my guess is: “all of the above.”
One thing was obvious: his brain loved those blocks. He worked for half-an-hour—long past when his parents were done with blocks and ready to move on to the next activity.
I wanted to help. As an experienced block builder, I could have told him that this two-at-a-time method was the hard way of building something. I could have shown him how to put one on top of the other carefully so that the base was more stable. I could have explained that to be stable the center of gravity has to be below the geometric center. But even I am not that stupid. The challenge he had set for himself was driven by inner neurological necessity. He was going for something, and I was smart enough not to presume to know what it was. I just watched.
It can be frustrating for a father to watch his son try to do something. From an adult point of view we are presiding over failure after failure. But if the goal is to build strong brains, we simply must let the brain direct the project.
Life for humans is effort and error.
At four in the morning Barbara lies in her bed going over and over all six of the ways she tried and failed to get Johnny to learn that 25 – 16 = 9. That same morning Mark, the principal, can’t get back to sleep thinking about the sexist thing the top candidate for third grade teacher said in his office the day before. Barry sits at his typewriter staring at the words on the paper in front of him.
They all realize they made a mistake somewhere.
How well these four people do in life depends in large part on their attitude toward mistakes. Barbara was considering calling the parents in to discuss Johnny’s difficulties and to recommend a thorough psycho-educational evaluation. Mark was considering hiring the teacher, anyway. Barry was about to rip the paper out and start again. Jonah? Right. He didn’t have a problem. He was doing research on the world and building his brain. To a scientist a wrong answer is as interesting as a right answer. Each one provides the same amount of data.
An expert violinist puts her finger on a string, presses it to the sounding board and draws the bow over the string. She does not expect that the finger is in the perfect place; for she knows that making the right sound requires vibrating the finger above and below the correct string length many times a second. It’s called vibrato. Similarly, good decision-making is not a set of one-shot actions, but a vibrato of a series of decisions.
Life for humans is effort and error. No matter how good one gets one still makes mistakes. Achievement isn’t getting it right; it’s successive approximation, like the musical concept of vibrato when you are trying to hit a note. Paradoxically, all four people get better results when they realize that the name of the game is building a brain.
The next day Barbara tried something new. She asked Johnny to explain his decision making process to her. He showed her how he would do 25-16 and came up with 9. Even though it seemed circuitous to her, she congratulated him on showing her a new way. Johnny then proceeded to do a whole worksheet of double-digit subtraction. “Excellent,” said Barbara. We are going to call this the Johnny method.”
Mark once said to me: “I was half-way through my second year as principal, when I finally understood what my job was. People aren’t counting on me to be right; they are counting on me to make decisions. As soon as I realized that, I had the job knocked: just make decisions. If I make a wrong decision, guess what; I make another decision, and then another and another. A mistake is simply an opportunity to make another decision. The trick is knowing when and how to change your mind.”
This time Mark decided not to hire the teacher but to continue the search even though the rest of the hiring committee loved the candidate. He decided to turn hiring a teacher into an opportunity for him to communicate where he stood on a critical diversity issue.
Barry ripped out the paper and started over again.
Creating, teaching, leading, and writing all have one thing in common: what is critical is not the number of errors but the number of trials.