Discovery Through Failure: The Most Interesting Thing I Learned in “How Not to Be Wrong”

After finishing “The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg, I was thinking a lot about the narrative of self discovery and development and how similar it is to pure mathematics. Proving some crazy Euclidean axiom of parallel lines led Bolyai to discovering what he dubbed as a ‘strange new universe’, the realm of spherical geometry. The process of pure abstract mathematics is an interesting construct, setting time down to work on proofs, theorems and discussions about various mathematical concepts. A lot of the exercise involves failure, miserable terrible failure, but there is a rhythm to it. As we find more ways to be incorrect, more ways to find ‘wrong turns’ or dead ends, we create a map, and as these elements pile up we discover the theorem that we were looking for in the first place, that strange new universe.

This relates to a Tedx I was listening to from the author of the “48 Laws of Power” in how he describes his self discovery towards finding his finish line after soul searching for many years. His stick-to-it-ness is similar to a mathematician’s grit that keeps one chugging through ridiculously difficult theorems and proofs year after year. The dead ends don’t count as being wrong, especially if the mathematician or individual is willing to continue moving forward. To be wrong is to give up, to accept a construct, an idea that you don’t believe in simply because you can’t prove it otherwise. In other words, to stop searching. To settle. Being able to say, “I don’t know” is a powerful tool. It gives you the perspective to check yourself and embrace humility, it gives you the ability to recontextualize and approach a problem from a different angle, and it gives you time to think about the problem for an extensive period of time. You find new ways to fail, new ways to enter a contradiction, new ways to enter a dead end. You toil and fall through the rigors of life, but slowly, surely, you are carving out a theorem of your success, and the more you fail, the more it becomes clear what you need to do next.

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