Recently I attended a memorial service for someone who had become, for me, both a friend and an inspiration. Dr. William Lipscomb received the 1976 Nobel Prize in chemistry for “studies that were the first to explain the chemistry of the element boron and, in particular, those exotic combinations of boron and hydrogen called boranes” (Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times). I knew him as Bill — my special laureate in the annual Ig Nobel Award ceremony where I perform on stage as a “minor domo.”
Bill was, without question, a superb scientist — he won his Nobel Prize alone, not as part of a team, which is quite rare — and a gifted teacher; two of his students went on to win their own Nobels. His musical abilities were notable; he played the clarinet with the skill of a professional. Above all, Bill was a great humanist and a very wise man. At his memorial service, among the accolades and fond recollections, one story, told by a former graduate student, took me by surprise.
Eric Gouaux talked about his years of studying with “the Colonel,” as Bill, channeling his Kentucky roots, was affectionately known. Gouaux recalled talking with Bill about his decision to study chemistry. Why chemistry? Bill replied that once he decided to follow his science bliss, rather than pursue a career as a clarinetist, he figured he would take up physics. “But then,” Bill said, “I discovered that I couldn’t make mistakes fast enough in physics.”
He couldn’t make mistakes fast enough in physics. But he was able make mistakes fast enough in chemistry, so chemistry it was.
Neither our educational system nor our culture values mistakes. Take politics. Apparently politicians of acceptable “character” are born, not made. For a politician to admit that, as a youth, s/he [experimented with drugs] [protested a war] [tried same-gender sex] [you name it] is career suicide. Unless, of course, that person found God and was cleansed of all youthful indiscretions.
In our society, we tend to view mistakes as indicative of weakness rather than the invaluable, irreplaceable learning tool that they are. We discount what it means to be willing to make mistakes — to take a risk, have the courage to try something that might not work and the integrity to accept the consequences. And we ignore that the best measure of character is the ability to accept and absorb the lessons that mistakes have to offer and, in that fertile context, grow and, when we’re lucky, transcend our limitations.
The Colonel’s advice to Gouaux: Make as many mistakes as you can but make them fast. Learn from them and move on.
Taking that advice to heart, supporting the kind of energetic engagement with the world that might result in honest, gutsy mistakes … would that be wrong?
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