The Fortune of Mistakes

The Fortune of Mistakes


“To err is human.”


We’ve all heard that phrase before. What I always find interesting is that, so often, the second part – arguably the most important part – is left off. The second part is truly the most important part of that quote, but we forget the part about forgiving. 


“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”— Alexander Pope


Often, the person we fail to forgive is ourselves.


We live in fear of making mistakes and, when we do stumble, we beat ourselves up over it. But we learn much through our foibles, and we can’t progress as a society without them. There’s the added plus that little gems are frequently found hiding at the bottom of a bungle. A recent Reflection column, “My Favorite Accidents,” recalls some of my happiest errors.


And I’m not the only one who has benefitted from mistakes. Many of mankind's greatest inventions were created by accident.


Penicillin was discovered when Alexander Fleming found green mold contaminating the petri dishes he used to grow bacteria. The mold (later known as Penicillin) systematically destroyed all of the bacteria in the petri dishes, becoming the first antibiotic.


After a hunting trip in the Alps, Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed burrs sticking to his dogs’ fur. He viewed one under a microscope to see what made it so sticky and saw tiny hooks that allowed it to latch onto surfaces like fabric and fur. After multiple experiments with a variety of textiles, Velcro was born. Eventually, Apollo astronauts used Velcro to keep objects secure in orbit.


And our beloved chocolate chip cookies would have never existed if Ruth Graves Wakefield hadn’t run out of Bakers chocolate and substituted chopped semi-sweet chocolate in her cookie mix. She hoped it would disperse into the mixture as it cooked, like Bakers chocolate, but it didn’t. The pieces kept their individual shape, softening to a moist, gooey melt, becoming the world’s first chocolate chip cookie (in my book, a more important invention than Penicillin).


Mistakes Lead to Mastery


Mistakes can lead to new discoveries and are essential to mastery. Want to know the difference between a master and a beginner?


“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried." – Stephen McCranie


Early in the career of a jewelry designer friend, a mistake led to her favorite creation. She tried numerous times to create a necklace out of dissimilar shaped pieces of watermelon quartz, but she could never get it to lay flat against the skin. 


In frustration, she snapped the necklace up from her counter and wrapped it around her wrist to head back to the drawing board. When she looked down at her wrist to take it off, she saw the most beautiful bracelet she had yet to make. It hit her that she’d spent a lot of time frustrated, trying to force a preconceived vision of how her necklace should look, when the real design those stones were meant for was patiently waiting below her boiling point and right on her wrist.


Something as simple as taking a wrong turn can lead, as it did for a friend, to a new home. She was changing jobs at the time and looking for a new place to live closer to work. Lost in thought, she turned too early and found herself in a lovely neighborhood she didn’t know existed. Aimlessly she wandered, driving up and down the different streets until she saw a “for sale” sign in the yard of a house with a front porch swing, something she’d always wanted. She knew instantly that house was going to be her new home – and all because of a fortunate “mistake.”


I once got upset because a piece of sportswear I ordered arrived in the wrong size. It was a size I haven’t worn in years. Frustrated, I decided to try it on before calling the store to complain and re-order. What do you know? It fit perfectly.


A happy accident.


A fortunate mistake.


Hear how great those words sound when paired with a positive adjective? Let’s all agree to relax and embrace our mistakes and accidents.


There may be fortunate side effects waiting inside them.