Generally, we try not to make mistakes. You might regret your mistakes, or maybe you even manage to learn a lesson from making one.
But do you have a favorite mistake? One that you thought was terrible, but turned out to be beneficial? Or maybe one that provided you with such an opportunity to grow that it impacted your entire life?
What is your favorite mistake?
Related questions: When is it useful to fail? What do you do that you shouldn’t? What is the value of inefficiency? How has luck shaped your life?
2 thoughts on “What Is Your Favorite Mistake?”
Some time in my early teens, my mother gave me a science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, The Robots of Dawn. Despite it being book three of a series, I not only followed everything, I absolutely fell in love with Asimov’s writing style.
I made my way through much of his science fiction output over the course of the years that followed, with smatterings of his voluminous non-fiction work sprinkled in.
On the back dust jacket of some books, or in the “about the author” page at the back of the book, I saw references to Asimov being an Associate Professor or Biochemistry at Boston University. When it came time for me to apply to college, one of the schools I chose was Boston University. It seemed like a long shot, but dreams of actually having Asimov as a teacher were simply too much to resist!
Shortly after I applied to BU, I read Asimov’s massive two-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, where it became clear that he had long ago made the transition to the life of full-time author and that the BU title was now purely ceremonial. He even lived in New York City, not in Boston.
(This was pre-Internet days, whereas now a simple Wikipedia search would have explained this fact, but as a kid living in remote northern Minnesota, my access to information was somewhat limited. Or perhaps I was willingly living in denial.)
I was crushed, even though I had known the chance of taking a class with Asimov was slim at best. Now I knew it was impossible. The submission to BU had been a waste of time and money.
But Boston University got back to me, accepting my admission. Not only that, but of all the places I applied, they gave me the best student-aid package, much of which offset the sky-high tuition prices I couldn’t afford.
So I ended up attending Boston University, even though I had never been to Boston in my entire life, not even to do a school visit. Other than the admission brochure, I didn’t know anything at all about the school, aside from the fact that Isaac Asimov was a non-teaching professor emeritus.
It turned out to be a great decision. I learned a lot, had a number of great teachers, and made a lot of friends that I am still in touch with today. In fact some thirty years later, now I live in a suburb of Boston, just a few miles from the school.
And remarkably, my hopes of meeting Asimov actually came to fruition! No, I didn’t take a class with him as the instructor, but during my freshman year, BU celebrated it’s one-hundred and fifty year birthday. There was a week-long celebration, filled with all kinds of history about the school, as well as panels of talks given by famous people of all stripes on a variety of subjects.
On the final day, one of the panels consisted of three people: Nobel Prize-winning physicists Murray Gell-mann and Freeman Dyson, as well as science fiction author Isaac Asimov! Before the talk, I managed to find him in the crowd, introduce myself, and got him to autograph a book. It was a highlight of an already remarkable year of my life, and the culmination of a mistake that set the tone of the rest of my entire life.
I used to be a conservative. Now I am on the left end of the political spectrum. The following provides the instance that sparked a year’s-long transformation that would eventually change my personal ideology. And that is my favorite mistake.
On one of my first days of college during the U of M’s Student Involvement Fair, I sought out a campus organization that would help me get involved in homelessness issues, which I got concerned about as a competitive extemporaneous speaker in high school.
I approached the student-staffed tables out and asked, “Do you work on homelessness issues?” of all the groups I thought might help me find an outlet for this growing passion of mine. None noted interest as a current priority for them. And then I saw this weirdly-named “Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG);” their name told me nothing about what they worked on, but I had no more options best I could tell. So I, again, asked, “Do you work on homelessness issues?”
One of the students at the table shrugged his shoulders but decided to look around at his colleagues. I was about to get the same answer I received at all the rest of the tables when a student who was obviously in a leadership role stopped shuffling some of the papers on the table to say, “We don’t right now, but if you want to learn how to organize students around ending homelessness, we’ll teach you how.”
I left with a flyer indicating when their introductory meeting was taking place. I was even called on a later date and reminded by the same student that he would love to help me get more students concerned about the issue.
I don’t remember attending the first meeting — something the then-Michael would have considered a huge mistake. I remember spending a lot of time over my freshman year (1989-90) in college hanging out with people who dressed differently and had more hair than me — I liked button-up shirts with nice jeans and to be clean-shaven; the others seemed to be hippy-like. I remember feeling uncomfortable as the group talked about things like social, economic, and environmental justice and doing tangible things to achieve them.
Soon, I was leading MPIRG’s hunger and homelessness task force. I learned the difference between terms like “problems” and “issues” and “mobilizing” and “organizing,” as well as recruitment equations, like “the rule of halves.”
By the end of the year, my old beliefs changed in leaps and bounds, but I still had some deeply-ingrained conservative inclinations. I decided to take a summer job as an MPIRG canvasser. I found myself hanging out with the other canvassers almost around the clock. We’d knock on doors, raise money for changing-making, recruit more canvassers during “off-work” hours, and spend late nights playing and singing justice songs from the 60s.
By the end of the summer, I was a lefty. Again, this was not something I sought. I was not seeking to rattle my whole belief system. I just wanted to work on homelessness issues. (If the College Republicans had told me they worked to address homelessness, I likely would have joined them!)
Mind you, I share this story not to diss conservatives. Over the years as a professional advocate for an end to homelessness, some of my most fervent legislative allies in preventing and ending homelessness are or were Republican legislators. They believe(d) passionately in a small government. Still, they also recognize(d) the rise in homelessness in Minnesota and the United States and thought government could play a proactive role in reversing this trend. They also believe(d) that one of the limited number of things a small government should do is help take care of the poor and vulnerable’s needs. I sincerely appreciate(d) working with them to advance change.