Successful Failure

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No one likes to make mistakes. In fact, we can be downright haunted by them. Mistakes have the power to make us feel foolish, expose our weaknesses and reduce carefully laid foundations to rubble. Whether it’s a vision in mind for a particular project, intentions for a valued relationship or carefully laid plans for the future, mistakes that alter our objectives can be devastating…  or they can be unexpected game-changers – great opportunities for success.

Some of the world’s greatest discoveries have materialized when scientists, doctors, innkeepers and altogether common but curious individuals made mistakes – big ones.

  • When scientist Alexander Fleming decided not to clean his workstation before going on vacation one day in 1928, he returned to find a strange fungus on some of his cultures. Stranger still, he noticed that bacteria didn’t seem to thrive near those cultures. That observation lead to the discovery of Penicillin.
  • When a pharmacist named John Pemberton intended to concoct a medicinal syrup in 1886, he stirred carefully selected ingredients in a large brass kettle, over an open fire, with an oar until he felt it had reached perfection. His intention to create a tonic for people who were tired, nervous or suffering from sore teeth, was replaced with a popular beverage we all drink today – Coca-Cola.
  • In the 1930’s, an innkeeper named Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Wakefield, Massachusetts, planned to bake a chocolate dessert for her guests. When the chocolate pieces she mixed into her batter didn’t melt thoroughly she’d invented one of our most enduring favorite desserts of all time – the chocolate chip cookie.
  • A cook in 10th Century China got quite a surprise when he mixed three common kitchen ingredients – saltpetre (a salt substitute used in the curing of meat), sulphur and charcoal  – and accidentally set light to the concoction. And fireworks were born.

While all of the above examples include a blunder, the real key is the way each person decided to “see” their mistake and act on it. Rather than brand themselves as failures, discard their results or rush to hide their snafus and miscalculations they each kept an open mind, let go of their original intentions and saw the potential for alternate possibilities.

When we make mistakes and things seem to be failing miserably, an unexpected but significant discovery could be just around the corner. We simply have to remember to be open to the possibility and to make the most of the results of our efforts, whether they’re perceived as positive or negative. I recall a famous Italian explorer who once set sail for Asia under a Spanish flag, and found himself on the shore of a country he didn’t recognize. Since Columbus, many people have gone on expeditions, literal and figurative, and ended up in places they never expected to be. The successful ones get past the disappointment and work with a new vision, even when they end up on unexpected shores.

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