On the Fruitfulness of Error

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I teach philosophy.*

This often stops conversations because nothing about me looks remotely philosophical. I look organized, efficient, competent, focused, and suspiciously (impossibly) matter-of-fact. In short, I look every bit the middle manager I was actually trained to be.

Fourteen years ago, to be a middle manager was the height of my youthful aspirations. I’d examined my college examination form and wrote down, in decreasing order of preference, the following choice of courses:

Choice # 1: Management Engineering

Choice # 2: Business Management Honors

Choice # 3: Business Management

As an afterthought, and only because it was what I really wanted, I listed down:

Choice # 4:  Humanities

Satisfied that at least 75% of my choices were pragmatic, I submitted my application—and promptly embarked on a most spectacular existential violation of my first major’s shortest path algorithm.** It would take nine years, three careers, two countries, four cities, ten homes and two-and-a-half majors later before I would find myself at the same point where I’d almost started.***

All of which means, as an anorexic drummer and singer from the 1970s once crooned, that I’ve “only just begun.”

And it’s appropriate in the end, given where I’ve actually arrived, for few other vocations (if any at all) prize perpetual beginnings the way philosophy does. To pursue a path with utter conviction only to start anew, to blaze a trail with zealous passion only to begin again—all of these are detours and deviations that only a philosopher would take with pride. The mistakes, the faults, the miscalculations, the slips—all of these are the very stuff of reflection, the failures upon which every achievement of thought is based.

And what all of this boils down to, given our very human propensity for error, is that I have what is possibly the best job on earth.

* Whether or not this makes me a philosopher is another thing entirely.

** A shortest path algorithm, very simplistically speaking, is a set of precise and finite rules designed to identify the shortest path between two given nodes such that the sum of the lengths of their constituent edges is minimized. One common problem to which the algorithm is applied is finding the quickest route between two given locations on a particular map. In the Philippines, the algorithm is redundant because the preferred method for identifying the shortest route is to violate traffic rules altogether.

*** Whether or not all my meandering was actually a violation of the shortest path principle depends on your point of view. In physics, where reality is seen as the curved space we all inhabit, the shortest path between two points actually turns out to be a curve. What they don’t warn you in physics is that some curves are merely partially camouflaged circles.****

**** If any doubt still remains about whether or not I am a philosopher, the liberal application of footnotes in this essay should resolve all skepticism altogether.


2 thoughts on “On the Fruitfulness of Error

  1. Jonathan says:

    Eileen, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You’ve got such an inspiring story. And I hope it’s one you get to share with your students and many many others!


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