Setbacks, learning from mistakes, and my incorrect view of intelligence

Things have been going well professionally for quite a while now. It was therefore only a matter of time before a setback came along. The details are not important but the lessons I’ve learned from my mistakes are.

Just over a month ago I was told a project I’d been working on for 11 months was almost a complete failure. I came to this realisation too late to fully resurrect the project, so salvaged as much as I could before the deadline. The awareness of my failure was a tough pill to swallow: I accepted the result but greatly reduced my conception of my intelligence and my self-worth. For about 24 hours I had this very negative view of myself personally and professionally. I am very fortunate I have a supportive partner who was able to help me see through this emotional downturn. I am doubly lucky as this disappointment won’t have a long-term negative impact on my career. But I shouldn’t wash my hands of the episode and forget about it. This was an important learning opportunity for me so I, with prompting from my partner, conducted a post-mortem.

How had I worked on a project for so long without realising I was walking a path which would lead to ruin? How had I, or someone else, not seen the error of my ways? The main reason, I realised, was because I had become something I despise: arrogant.

A chimera

For over a year now, I’ve had a pretty positive view of my ability to succeed. As my life progressed, very slowly, this increased. Over a long enough period of time, this resulted in me becoming arrogant. I am pretty sure[note]Hope?[/note] I did not reveal this to other people, but it certainly affected how I approached work. I started to view myself as being able to surmount any challenge, no matter how difficult, without the support of others.

This change happened simultaneously (and was almost certainly fueled by) a changing in my conception of intelligence. As time wore on, I started to believe intelligence meant being able to succeed without really trying. That those who were truly gifted were able to achieve without effort, regardless of the nature and difficulty of the subject. This is obviously false. Effort is a fundamental component of success in any discipline. To believe that those who have succeeded have done so without putting in the work is ludicrous. So how did I end up thinking this?

Looking back, I think my blossoming arrogance led me to believe I needed to act like these mystical figures. I therefore, subconsciously, copied what I believed their behaviour patterns were. I pushed ahead with work I didn’t have a full grasp of, charging to answer a question I hadn’t understood the full complexities of. The union of my new found arrogance and distorted beliefs about intelligence resulted in me not utilising the help readily offered by those more knowledgeable around me.

And so, as a thousand tiny steps in increasing self-confidence can lead someone to become arrogant, a thousand tiny steps in the direction of the “lone genius” trope can take you into an isolated corner[note]To clarify, I certainly don’t think of myself as a genius; more that I unconsciously wanted to emulate this unhelpful archetype.[/note].

Learning from my mistakes

How can I ensure I don’t fall into the same unhelpful thought patterns as before? How can I ward off arrogance and stop myself from sabotaging my own progress? The most fundamental idea I need to hold on to is: I am not alone. There are more educated people all around me. Most of them are happy to support others when asked nicely. I therefore mustn’t be too proud to ask for help. I don’t negate the challenge of something or undermine my learning by doing so. That is literally how you learn. By blindly marching ahead, I made some bad mistakes that have cost me. A key sign of intelligence is learning from your mistakes. I need to make sure I do so.

These are not new or ground-breaking revelations. But it is good to be reminded of them. Stay humble. Use the many minds around me to better myself. Then I can reach my potential.

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