By Kimberly Feltes Taylor and Eric Braun, coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes
Perhaps you have heard the famous story about Alexander Fleming, that sloppy scientist who left some of his petri dishes unwashed and ended up discovering penicillin when he noticed that one patch of mold was preventing the growth of bacteria. As Bob Ross might say, just a happy accident. Or maybe you’ve heard of Patsy Sherman, the 3M chemist who, after her assistant fumbled some chemicals onto her shoes, realized her sneakers repelled stains. That spill led her to invent Scotchgard, a fabric protectant that takes the sting—make that the stain—out of future mistakes.
History is full of mistakes that turned out great. Why? Because history is full of mistakes. We all make them. All the time. And we all know we all make them. Heck, most of us understand that mistakes are how we learn—and yet . . .
And yet . . . sometimes making a mistake just feels so darn bad. We mess up or misstep, we wipe out or whiff, or we take a chance that leads to disaster (or a minor setback), and we can’t face it. We’re embarrassed. Or ashamed. Or defeated. Even for the most mature grown-ups, it can be hard to move on from mistakes in a healthy way. For kids and teens, it’s often a lot harder because they don’t have the life experience that adults do. They haven’t seen enough of their failures turn to positives. They may lack the perspective to see it. The social stakes can feel so high that even the tiniest mistake can seem crushing.
That’s why it’s so important to talk about this topic. Here are a few stories to share with students about big-time blunders and the cool things that came of them. They all show people owning their mistakes, trying their best to fix them, and learning from them—the three keys to taking the ACHE out of mistakes and moving on in a healthy way. Choose a few to talk about with your group, and ask for volunteers to contribute their own stories.
A Rice Cooker That Burned Rice
After World War II, Japanese physicist Akio Morita returned to Tokyo to join a new company called Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute. Working in an old department store burned out from the war, he invented the company’s first product: a rice cooker. Unfortunately, the rice cooker was lousy at cooking rice. What it did was burn the rice. The company sold only 100 units. It was a colossal failure. Luckily, Morita and his partner had tenacity. They moved on, subsequently inventing magnetic recording tape, and in 1950 they sold the first tape recorder. By this time, they had changed the name of their company to Sony, from sonus, the Latin word for “sound,” and the phrase “sonny boy,” a common American expression at the time.
Sony, of course, went on to produce a few other big products, including the Walkman and the PlayStation, while establishing itself as one of the most important corporations in the world.
If at First You Don’t Succeed . . .
In the early 1940s, a 17-year-old boy got up onstage at a theater in New York to audition for a play. The director asked him if he was ready. The kid said yes. He then proceeded to read from the script as if each word were its own sentence: “When. Are. You. Going. To. Be. At. . . .”
The director ran up onstage and marched the kid to the door, saying, “Get out of here and stop wasting people’s time!”
The kid had clearly bombed. And on top of that, the director chose to humiliate him. Nobody would have blamed the kid if he never tried out for a play again. But instead of giving up, he thought about what he needed to do differently to succeed—he had to learn to read better. So he spent the next six months working on improving his reading skills. Then he went back to the same theater to audition again. Guess what happened this time?
Yep. He landed a position with the company and soon became a lead actor in their productions.
Who was this young thespian who wouldn’t give up? None other than one of the greatest actors ever to grace the stage and screen: Sidney Poitier.
Not long after establishing himself as a powerhouse of the theater, Poitier broke through on the big screen, eventually starring in over 40 films, including the classics A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
That kid who messed up at his first audition went on to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA (the British Oscars). He has been honored by the NAACP, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In 1974, Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and in 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
They Were Supposed to Melt
Every day, all around the United States, people enjoy a yummy treat that started out as a mistake. What is the treat? Here are some hints: It’s a cookie. It has chips of chocolate in it. Can you guess? That’s right! It’s the chocolate chip cookie!
Who gets to claim ownership of this delicious mistake? That would be Ruth Wakefield. She and her husband owned the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts. One day, in 1930, Wakefield decided to make a batch of chocolate cookies for her guests. However, she was out of baker’s chocolate. But she did have a bar of Nestlé’s semisweet chocolate. So, using an ice pick, she broke up the chocolate bar into small pieces and mixed the pieces into her cookie dough. She assumed that the chocolate pieces would melt throughout each cookie in the oven.
But when Wakefield took the cookies out of the oven, she discovered that the chips had not melted. She served the cookies anyway—and her guests loved them!
Today, there are many different recipes for chocolate chip cookies, but you can find the original recipe for Wakefield’s mistake—the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie—on the back of the packaging for Nestlé’s chocolate chips.
From Fired Cartoonist to Movie Mogul
What words and phrases come to mind when you think of Walt Disney? Creative genius. Innovator. Visionary. Brilliant. Gifted. Lacking imagination . . . wait, what?
Today, probably no one would describe Walt Disney as “lacking imagination.” But that’s exactly how one of his first bosses described him—when firing him!
The year was 1919. Disney was still a teenager at the time. He was working as a cartoonist for a newspaper in Missouri. The boss who fired him was his editor.
Did Disney’s ideas really lack imagination? Or was the editor simply unable to see the creativity of Disney’s pitches? It’s difficult to know today. But either way, Disney did not allow the negative feedback to derail his dreams. He moved to Hollywood, and at the age of just 22, he started Walt Disney Studios (originally named Disney Brothers Studios) with his brother Roy. The studio became an innovator in the world of animation and has produced some of the most imaginative animated films ever made, including Fantasia.
Oh, and many years later, the Disney Company bought the American Broadcasting Company, which owned the newspaper Disney had been fired from as a teen.
Umpire Blows Historic Call
Not all historic mistakes end in amazing medical breakthroughs or massive movie studios. Sometimes they simply give us a chance to witness empathy on a grand scale. On June 2, 2010, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from pitching a perfect game—not allowing a baserunner in a complete nine-inning game. This incredible feat had only been accomplished 20 times in the history of Major League Baseball (MLB). It would have put Galarraga’s name in the record books alongside the greatest pitchers of all time.
Galarraga got out 26 batters in a row and had one last out to go when Cleveland batter Jason Donald hit a soft grounder toward first base. The Tigers first baseman ranged over to scoop it up and tossed it to Galarraga, who had come over to cover the base. The throw was in time, and it looked like the Tigers got Donald out. In fact, Galarraga started celebrating his incredible achievement.
But then he stopped. As he looked toward umpire Jim Joyce, he realized Joyce had called Donald safe. So Galarraga got back up on the mound and got back to work. His bid for a perfect game was lost.
At the time, umpires were not allowed to change their call using replays to review the play. If they had, Joyce would have almost surely corrected the call, because replays clearly showed that Donald was out. However, Joyce didn’t get to see the video until after the game. When he did, he realized that he had blown the call. He was devastated. He tearfully said, “I took a perfect game away from that kid over there.” He apologized to Galarraga. What happened next was simple and human and extraordinary. Pro athletes are extremely competitive. Pitching a perfect game would mean a lot to any MLB pitcher, and it surely meant a lot to Galarraga. But Galarraga didn’t hesitate to forgive Joyce.
“He probably feels more bad than me,” he said. “Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s human. I understand.” The two men even shared a hug before the next day’s game.
Kimberly Feltes Taylor has written over 15 books for young people, including the popular Yolanda series of advice books, which provide tips for dealing with peer pressure, family issues, friendship problems, money management, and workplace dilemmas. Kim has also written dozens of classroom magazine articles. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow and an Aspen Summer Words scholar for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.
Kimberly and Eric are coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes
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