Art is a simultaneously freeing and terrifying thing — especially if you’re someone who chooses to primarily draw in ink. Whenever I draw, I’m forced to relinquish the hesitant part of myself. Each pen stroke, to a certain degree, demands decisiveness. Drawing can be methodical, and there are rules that govern how to create the subtle gradation of ink as you shade a drawing.

But, mistakes are inevitable.

Erasers have their purpose, and certain mediums are more forgiving than others. If the piece develops past a certain point, any error or any little slip of your pen becomes a permanent fixture of the piece. After that, you can work to blend it into the background, or you force yourself to redirect your piece and transform an error into a beneficial accident.

As a navigationally challenged individual as well as an artist, another type of redirection is also all too familiar. I get lost all the time. It honestly doesn’t matter whether I’ve lived in a place for my whole life or for only a matter of days. Whether following my friends’ cars on some back-roads back home or venturing on an unfamiliar path in Ann Arbor, there’s a good chance I’ll take a wrong turn or find the longest, most complicated route possible.

My notorious lack of direction always leads to a few jokes and some concern from my friends, but I’ve grown to appreciate these moments of being lost. Only when it’s related to art or roaming about a city do I abandon my indecisiveness. Getting lost is rarely, if ever, deemed a smart thing to do, but it’s in these moments that making mistakes feels like an avenue to figuring things out. Those close to me have repeatedly noticed a particular behavior whenever I seek advice from them. They’ve told me that basically I tend to know exactly what I want to do, but I often worry if the decision I’m making is a smart one.

It’s not unusual to want to avoid making mistakes. However, far too often I’ve fallen under a common misconception described by Prof. Jo Boaler of Stanford University. I’ve often mistakenly associated both “being smart” and making smart decisions with never getting anything wrong. In my mind, there’s always been an absolutely “right” decision.

This type of thinking develops at a very young age and continues throughout one’s life. According to Boaler, this misconception originates when individuals “perform well (academically or otherwise) at young ages and are labeled smart or gifted,” and as a result, “they become less likely to challenge themselves.” Fearful of making mistakes, these students may surround themselves in their comfort zones.

College is meant to be an environment that steeps us in academia to challenge our ways of thinking and reasoning, to expand our skill sets and to gain knowledge. Essentially, the goal of these institutions is to make young adults smarter. We’re aware of this purpose when we apply. Here at the University, intelligence is one of the tenets we pride ourselves on. However, few may consider how college should change our definitions of intelligence and challenge our own perceptions of how smart we consider ourselves to be.

The opportunities to redefine these notions, challenge ourselves and to make mistakes continually evolve throughout our college careers. In the early undergraduate years, anxiety may arise as one deliberates between difficult courses or between different requirements when selecting a major. Eventually, we may begin to hesitate and deliberate as concerns may shift to what organizations to join or what jobs to apply to. (As a rising senior, the last one is growing increasingly relevant and nerve-wracking.)

There’s always pressure to accomplish this intelligently and with the least amount of error possible — possibly to the point where students inhibit themselves if any of the options threaten this plan. Yet, numerous factors are at play and could pose a risk. If a student, for one reason or another, doesn’t understand a concept, fails an exam, does poorly in a class, switches their major, decides to transfer to a different university, participates in a job or internship that doesn’t really suit their interests, misses a deadline or applies for a job they don’t get, there’s merit to each one of these occurrences.

These incidents of being lost don’t indicate a lack of intelligence. Rather, they provide opportunities for individuals to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve gained as they redirect their ambitions, create new plans and move forward. As daunting as the possibility of mistakes may be, they’re crucial aspects of learning. Boaler elaborates on this by describing how embracing challenges and even potential failure stimulates cognitive structures responsible for brain growth.

This style of learning — referred to as a growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck — through facing challenges and making errors even possesses the potential to upheave issues of gender inequality in society. Dismantling the idea that intelligence is innate could drive more young women to enroll in challenging STEM classes. Without the fear of failure or mistakes, women may apply for more lucrative positions in other underrepresented career sectors or may choose to further their education at the postgraduate level.

Risk prevention is beneficial only to a certain extent, and intelligence doesn’t translate into the absence of mistakes in one’s life. Instead, a mark of being truly smart is acknowledging the necessity of testing one’s limits, accepting the possibility of failure and appreciating the value of being lost. You may wander and turn down the wrong path with no way to erase your steps. You, actually, may make numerous wrong turns. But, the skills and the knowledge you uncover along the way will aid you in creating a new path.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.

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