Stumbling Upon Greatness: The Magic of Mistakes

While the pursuit of perfection may be noble, the reality of trying to be perfect is thankless. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity and undermines the ability to learn from and benefit from mistakes. When we play it safe and mindlessly follow routines and rules, we miss out on opportunities to grow.

Mistakes are often a good thing. Consider, for example, the discovery of penicillin. It was discovered accidentally by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming was a highly regarded bacteria researcher, one known for keeping a messy laboratory. Before leaving for a month’s vacation, instead of doing the dishes, he stacked a bunch of Petri dishes filled with bacteria he had finished studying on a back shelf. When he returned, he noticed patches of mold growing on the dishes he had forgotten to clean. Where there was mold, there was no bacteria.

From that minor act of sloppiness and scientific observation, we got one of the most widely used antibiotics today.

Post-it notes are another example of a “good mistake.” While trying to create a super-strong glue, chemist Spencer Silver erroneously created an easily removable adhesive and Post-it notes were born.

The wonderful children’s book Beautiful Oops captures the blessings of blunders. It highlights how every mistake – a smudge, a spill, a rip — is an opportunity to make something beautiful. Grown-ups can learn from a “beautiful oops” philosophy too.

Here are three ways mistakes are life-enhancing:

1. A mistake is a cue to be present. It takes us off autopilot.

2. Mistakes make things more interesting. Consider the difference between a perfect store-bought cake versus a lopsided homemade one or a hand knitted scarf versus a machine made one.

3. A mistake in one context may be a success in another like Penicillin or Post-It Notes.

How we think about mistakes and how we respond to them makes all the difference.

As Albert Einstein once said:

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman