Chocolate chip cookies, the Slinky, Play-Doh, Post-It notes, and potato chips. The one thing they all have in common is this: They’re losers.
Big fat mistakes. Accidents. Epic fails. None of them turned out to be the thing they were intentionally meant to be, and yet they’ve become household names. How did the thing we all fear so much – failure – turn into a lucky break for the people behind the inventions?
For the cookie, it was a simple matter of “failure to melt.” In 1930, a woman named Ruth Wakefield, who was co-owner of the Toll House Inn, was trying to make a chocolate dessert when she ran out of the chocolate she normally used. As a substitute, she used Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips, but they didn’t melt as she’d hoped they would. The result? Cookies with chocolate chips inside. The failed recipe gave birth to the best cookie the world has ever known.
The popsicle was also a project that took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. In 1905, an 11-year-old boy named Frank Epperson tried to make homemade soda pop. As boys that age often do, he got distracted from his project and left a bowl of his homemade soda pop sitting outside with the stir stick still in the bowl.
The temperatures dropped overnight, and when Frank came back to the bowl the next morning, he had a sweet frozen treat on a stick. More than 100 years later, our hot summer days wouldn’t be the same without Frank’s mistake.
But perhaps my favorite example of failure-turned-phenomenon might just be the story about two scientists working for the 3M company in 1968. One of them, Spencer Silver, was having a rough day at the office when his mission to invent a really strong adhesive failed miserably. Instead, he ended up with an extremely weak adhesive that would allow paper to be peeled off of anything.
The wimpy adhesive sat on the shelf for almost six years until a fellow scientist named Arthur Fry needed a bookmark for his church hymnal, preferably something that wouldn’t hurt the book’s pages. He remembered the failed adhesive and its lightly sticky quality that allowed it to be easily moved, and an idea came to mind.
Most people at the company didn’t think it would work as a real product – these sticky yellow squares. But in 1980 they gave it a shot, and now desks and cubicles in more than 100 countries around the world are covered in Post-It notes.
What I like most about these true stories is how they reinforce the value of making mistakes. They show me that we’re meant to make them because we’re humans and not robots. Mistakes are the things that teach us the most and propel us forward – either on the path we were originally on or in a whole new direction. Either way, we’re moving, growing and gaining wisdom, which is so much better than staying safely stuck right where we are.
Whether it’s making a sale, writing a book, creating art or baking a chocolate dessert, we must be willing to mess up, to look stupid, to waste our time. It’s hard to do, and a big part of me wants to resist it because mistakes can be heartbreaking, humiliating, frustrating and even scary. But they can also be the stepping stone to something amazing.
So perhaps we should all grab a pen and one of those wildly successful Post-It notes and write down this reminder: Be willing to make a mistake. You never know when it might turn into a chocolate chip cookie.
Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.