The Importance of Making Mistakes

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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Silvestr Vetchinin

Good judgment comes from experience.
Experience, well, That comes from poor judgment.

Laura T.
Laura T.3 years ago

The school system should change the grading system to include thenpossibility of making mistakes thatbare pArt of any exploration

Dianne Robertson
Dianne Robertson4 years ago

We ALL make mistakes. The smartest among us LEARN from them.

june t.
june t.4 years ago

we've all made mistakes. We also need to remember to be kind to others who make mistakes. We can learn from each other that way.

Rodney Paige
Rodney Paige4 years ago

Every single human being on this earth is messing up to do it right. Whatever messing up is, and whatever doing it right is, we're ALL doing it. We're ALL perfect in our imperfection.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim4 years ago

This is a great advice. No wonder he became such a wonderful person. Like they say, you gotta learn from your mistakes. :)

Christine Stewart

If you make a mistake and own up to it, and learn from it- that's life. If you lie about it, and repeat the same mistakes over and over- you have a character flaw!

Richard Zane Smith

one of the few articles i've read on care2 where no one is arguing in the comments!
ALL seem to have similar experiences and sentiments in this one.
though not always the funnest teacher, Ms.Stakes lessons
will be remembered more than those of Hyme Right

Phil w.
Phil w.4 years ago

oops !!!!
not a word you want to here when your having surgery
but you'd be surprised how often it's uttered.
mistakes are important - we all make them - then we learn.

Laurie D.
Laurie D.4 years ago

Years ago a dear friend of mine said that we learn most from people we dislike... I think that's rather like mistakes! Anything that makes you think will make you a better person!