Tag Archives: Mistakes

What I’ve Learned Through Crossword Puzzles

nytimes-episodeEvery day, I do the New York Times crossword puzzle. It truly is a ritual for me, almost as sacred as Shabbat: every night before going to bed, I load up the crossword on my phone or my computer, and try to plow through that mental challenge.

I’ve discovered that there’s a deep satisfaction that goes far beyond filling in that last box to complete the puzzle, and what I’ve learned is more than just the fact that Charles Lamb was also known as “Elia” and a whole long list of four-letter European rivers.  What I really love about crosswords is the struggle, trying to figure out how I’m going to go about solving it.

And what the process of solving crosswords has truly taught me is how easily success can become failure, and how easily failure can become success.

Quite often, I come across a clue whose answer I feel certain that I’ve filled in correctly. And then I discover that one of the crosses doesn’t work. But I was so sure I was right! But it’s not working.

That’s usually when I get frustrated, because what I “knew” to be right actually turned out to be totally wrong. At that moment, my apparent success is preventing me from making further progress on the puzzle. And so the only way to break through that struggle is to say, “Maybe my assumption was wrong.”

That’s not easy to do in life — to be able to say, “Perhaps I was mistaken.” But what I’ve discovered is that when I have to re-think my approach, I gain new knowledge that I wasn’t expecting. I become a better solver for future puzzles. I begin to think in new and innovative ways.

To put it another way, I’m learning.

There’s an important distinction between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is something to have; learning is something to do. And in Judaism, the emphasis is much less on knowledge and much more on learning. As Rabbi Bradley Artson says, “Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life.” (The Bedside Torah, 238)

In other words, learning is a life-long process, and it is never a simple journey from A to B to C — it’s a zigzag journey, and often requires several false starts.  Indeed, making mistakes — and learning from them — is crucial for our sense of growth. In fact, building from our mistakes is what allows us to transform failure into success.

This past week, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield wrote a piece in the New York Times called “The Secret Ingredient for Success,” where they shared some of the research they had done on high achievers, including David Chang, owner of Momufuku, Martina Navratilova, and the band OK Go. As they noted:

In interviews we did with high achievers…we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.

It’s never easy to accept the fact that we may have been going down the wrong path. Anyone who does crosswords knows how frustrating it can be to write, erase, re-write, re-erase, and start a whole section over again. But sometimes, if we take a step back and re-think what we’re doing, we can figure out that one word (or even one letter) that causes the whole puzzle to fall into place. What had seemed like abject failure just a few moments earlier has now become a completed grid.

So if we can become aware of our own shortcomings, if we can realize that at times our assumptions need to be revised, and if we can open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and new perspectives, then we can grow, learn and maybe even succeed.

As my colleague Rabbi Laura Baum recently wrote, “If we are not making mistakes, we are not pushing ourselves hard enough…But here’s the catch: Let’s try to make new mistakes. And each time we mess up, let’s consider what we can do differently next time.”

Indeed, crosswords can teach us more than just the first name of “NYPD Blue” actor Morales. They teach us how to fail — which is what we need to learn how to do in order to truly succeed.

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To Act or Not To Act? That is the Question

First of all, welcome to all the new people who are now following this blog! All of your comments were so thoughtful and insightful, so thank you for taking the time to think and to write. You’ve all definitely given me some food for thought!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

This Sunday, over 100 million people will be sitting around their TVs watching the Super Bowl. And at least once during the game, at least 98 million of them will scream, “Come on, ref — what are you, blind?!”

But while we may want to yell at referees for ignoring (seemingly) obvious calls, what’s really interesting is that we would actually get much more angry at a referee for being over-zealous. After all, we don’t want the refs determining the game — we want the players determining the game. So when a referee seems to act too overtly, and potentially alters the results of the game, it’s very hard for us to overlook that. Quite simply, “sins of commission” are much more difficult for us to forgive than “sins of omission.”

In fact, in their new book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won, authors Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim explain that what really drives people nuts isn’t whether or not the ref gets a call right. It’s about whether or not the ref appears to have actively affected the outcome of the game.

The finals of the Women’s US Open in 2009 between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters really highlighted this fact. If you didn’t get a chance to see the shocking end to the match, here it is:

This was the situation: Williams had lost the first set, and was down 5-6 in the second. With Williams serving, it was 15-30 when the lineswoman, Shino Tsurubuchi, called a foot fault, which docked Williams a point, leading to match point for Clijsters. Williams went ballistic, and yelled at Tsurubuchi, which then caused her to be docked a second point — and this point cost her the entire match.

The audience was furious (you can hear the boos in the video), and so even though Tsurubuchi had made the right call, the fans were so enraged that she had to be escorted from the court for her own safety. (Moskowitz and Wertheim, 26-29)

It’s one thing to see the correct call; it’s a whole other thing to have the courage to actually make it. And this is an issue we face, as well. When we have to take an action that is correct and appropriate — but also potentially difficult and controversial — are we brave enough to take it? Indeed, at moments like this, we are faced with a dilemma — to act or not to act? That is the question.

Well, our natural reaction is often not to act. We’re scared to have committed a “sin of commission,” because that is so much worse  than a “sin of omission.” But in contrast to focusing on what may simply be easier or less scary to us, Judaism urges us to act — even if that might push us outside of our comfort zone.

Jewish tradition, for example, commands us that we have to actively pursue two things — peace and justice. “If a person sits in his own place and does nothing, how can he pursue peace between people? So let him go from his own place and move around in the world and pursue peace. as it is said, ‘Seek peace and pursue it.‘ (Proverbs 34:14). What does that mean? Seek it in your own place, and pursue it to another place.” (Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar in Avot deRabbi Nathan 12) And in Deuteronomy 16:20, it says, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” That same word, “pursue,” appears there as well, implying that we can’t just sit idly by — we have to be proactive in creating a more just and more peaceful world.

So yes, it can be daunting to act, because it means that we will sometimes make mistakes. But we also know that if we sit on the sidelines, nothing will ever change. It is only through direct action that we can repair our world.

Taking action can be hard. But when it comes to creating a world filled with peace and justice, I think Nike said it best: Just Do It.


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