The 0.25 Second That Makes All the Difference

ist2_6078743-stopwatch-close-upWhen it comes to errors, most of us share a passionate and simple opinion: we don’t like them very much. We strive to avoid them, to conceal them, to avoid repeating them.  As a species, we are all essentially allergic to mistakes.

But there’s another way of thinking about error, and it begins with a story I heard recently about Marina Semyonova, a master teacher at the Bolshoi Ballet in the fifties.

The story goes like this: Every year, Semyonova would hold a tryout for the Bolshoi, which was (and still is) one of the world’s greatest ballet troupes. You can imagine the scene: dozens of brilliant young dancers milling about, years of experience holstered and ready, their dreams on the line.

At first, the tryout would proceed like any other: the dancers would try to show their abilities and vast repertoires. But then Semyonova would surprise them. She would stop the audition and teach them one new move  – something they’ve never tried.  They weren’t big complex moves – to the contrary, they were quite simple. It was as if the top-level audition suddenly was replaced by a beginners’ class.

The beginners’ class section took only a few minutes. But it was by far the most important moment of the audition, because by the time it was over Semyonova knew precisely which dancers to pick and which to pass over.  And as the record shows, she proved to be right far more often than not.

Semyonova wasn’t a neuroscientist, but she was onto something.  She wasn’t interested in measuring levels of skill – which changes over time and can be frustratingly unpredictable. She was zeroing in on a tiny slice of time that makes a massive difference in our learning ability  — that primal instant right after we make a mistake.

That instant – which this very cool brain-scan experiment shows to be about 0.25 seconds – is a fork in the road; the moment when things tip one way or the other. Either the mistake is judged as a verdict and thus blocked out — or it’s seen as a piece of information to be used.  And indeed, in the experiment referenced above, the students who used their mistakes (whose brains processed them deeply in that magical 0.25 seconds) ended up scoring higher than students who didn’t.

In other words, the old chestnut proves out to be true: it’s not the mistakes that are good or bad, but rather our reaction to them.  And this reaction – which we might deem our error-reflex — is in itself a kind of meta-skill, a measurable quality that is an accurate indicator of potential, and which can also be improved.

So the question becomes, how do we improve our own error-reflexes? How do we make more of our 0.25 second window? Here are a few ideas:

  • Depersonalize our mistakes by picturing them as navigation points. Because that’s what they are, literally, inside your brain –neural circuits whose wrongness nudges you in the right direction.
  • Break the reflex down into component parts. Every action is really three actions – the action, the recognition of the mistake, and the response. Each should be insulated from the others.
  • Expect to feel a bit disoriented because it’s a tricky balancing act, emotionally speaking. One moment, you have to put all of yourself into a sincere move – the next moment you have to pull back and evaluate. It requires an emotional equilibrium that helps you lurch between hot commitment one second and cool analysis the next.

That all reminded me of a sight I’ve seen while watching the World Cup these past few weeks: a player making a mistake (missing a shot at a wide-open goal, for instance), and then smiling about it, as if it somehow didn’t profoundly affect his future or the happiness of millions in his home country.

These are gargantuan, life-changing, career-altering moments – and yet a surprising number of the erring players (even the Germans!) react with the same understanding, nearly bemused smile that we never see on the faces of similarly erring stockbrokers or lawyers or politicians.

I’d like to suggest that their smiles can be traced to the essence of the game, which is built on the essential difficulty of controlling a ball with parts of our body least suited for control.  It’s very, very tough to score goals, or even make five good passes in a row, never mind get past 10 enemy players and a goalkeeper. As a result, soccer players are good friends with error.  They live in a world of constant screw-ups. They understand mistakes deeply, and that’s precisely what makes them such marvelous and resilient talents.

PS: Speaking of error’s bright side, you should check out Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz.  She’s a brilliant and funny guide to how errors are gifts, and how screwing up is key to our happiness and success.