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Takes on mistakes

June 17, 2011
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Fairly often, someone'll tell me they've got a bunch of great ideas I should write about. And almost inevitably, I never write about any of them.


Well, it's not because the ideas aren't interesting. Any idea is - in the hands of the right storyteller. Just is, in those cases, I'm not the right storyteller.

Having the material of a good story is one thing; actually writing it is something else. It's the difference between having a good woodlot and being able to turn it into a beautiful home.

So last week when I was chatting with Peter Crowley and he said, "Hey, you know what'd make some great stories," and then rattled off a bunch of subjects, my first reaction was to smile, nod my head and completely ignore him. Once again, not that the suggestions were bad, they just didn't resonate, as we New Age types say.

One struck me as especially irrelevant. It was, with high school graduation right around the corner, what words of wisdom to the graduates would be appropriate.

Me, words of wisdom?

Sure, I've got a lot of words. But wisdom? Puh-leeze.

Plus something else came into play - the age gap between me and the graduates. It's not just a matter of numbers: The difference in our ages betokens great differences in experiences, values, consciousness - enough things to make us citizens of two separate nations, if not inhabitants of two separate worlds.

Of course, just as we ancients always think we're younger than we are, we also think we're hipper than we are. It's as if somehow - magically, perhaps - we've kept up with the March of Time. But the sad truth is we haven't. If the M o T hasn't run over us, stomping the bejammers out of us, then it's left us in its wake, breathless, wheezing pathetically in its dust.


Way back when

I graduated 47 years ago. What was the world like, compared to now? Well, it was certainly a lot more black and white both literally and figuratively. Television was black and white; photographs were black and white; clothing was black and white. And issues were black and white - or at least they were presented as such. You did this, this and this; you did not do that, that, and that.

Rules, rules, rules. Young women (who old people could refer to as "girls," till they were in their 30s) never, but NEVER, called a young man (who old people could refer to as "boys," till they were in their 30s). Women also never paid for a date. Men walked on the outside, held the doors, pulled out chairs, wore sport coats, combed their hair, shined their shoes and so on.

Cell phones? Hey, in 1964 My Home Town didn't even have dial phones. Instead, you picked up the phone, an operator asked what number you wanted, and you told them. And since the whole operation was local, you often knew who the operator was, just by her voice.

Computers? Yeah, right. Try a slide rule, if you were a real math jock, and a pencil and paper if you weren't.

The majority of people smoked cigarettes, and they smoked them everywhere, including in doctors' offices and hospitals. The only time smoking was banned in hospitals was when oxygen was in use. Back in them days, Bunkie, we didn't mind killing ourselves slowly, but were righteously opposed to doing it fast.

I think the psyche, spirit and sentiment of those days were best summed up on a perfectly restored '65 Mustang I saw several years ago. In beautiful flowing Palmer method writing on the trunk was painted: "The class of '65 when food was slow and cars were fast."

Another reason I'm not fit to advise the graduates is that I'm not an expert on anything. Also, I've never accomplished anything significant, and anything I ever did accomplish was only because I had a lot of help and luck (and sometimes a lot more luck than help).


The Dope's advice

But then it hit me - actually, there is one thing I could talk to students about. I don't know if it's the thing I do best, but it's the thing I do the most. It is making mistakes.

For sure, it's a different take from most advice to young people I've ever heard. Usually, they're told to follow their dreams and passions, to think big, to go forth into the Cold Cruel World, heads up, eyes on the prize, getting ready to kick butt and take names.

And it's not bad advice as far as it goes. But what happens when you go forth, screw up, and the CCW proceeds to kick your butt and take your name?

You made a mistake maybe even a big one.

So now what?

Well, here's my advice.

First, simply accept it. Yeah, you blew it. But guess what? So does everyone. You now belong to the club that's got the biggest membership on Planet Earth.

Second, own the mistake. Yeah, you and only you did it. Don't try to shift blame. The cop gave you a ticket for doing 70 in a 55 zone because it's the law. You broke it and he enforces it. It's not because he's a fascist and you're a victim. He's a cop, you're a speeder, now you've got to pay for it, and that's all there is.

And don't even start singing that song about, "If I were a beautiful woman who burst into tears, he never woulda given me the ticket at all." Even if that's true, it's completely irrelevant - at least until you spend a whole lot of time, effort and money on gender reassignment surgery. After you do, then you can tell me all about it. Um on second thought, no, you can't.

Next, learn from your mistakes. And if you make a lot of them, then you've got a lot more chances to learn a lot more.

The perfect case in point is Thomas Edison. Before he found the perfect light bulb filament, he used hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different materials. There's a quote attributed to him (but never verified) that in the middle of this process his assistant said something like what a waste of time and effort it was, since they hadn't learned anything. And supposedly Edison replied something like they'd learned a great deal - they now knew 1000 materials that wouldn't make a light bulb.

The good news is none of us will ever experience as much failure as Edison.

The bad news is we'll never experience as much success, either.

Something else: Always remember that good things can come from bad mistakes. My college freshman year is a perfect example.

Due to a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was global immaturity, I was no more prepared to succeed in college than I was to command a battalion of the French Foreign Legion. So at the end of the year, to no one's surprise but mine, I flunked out.

What to do?

I did what I always thought I wanted to do - started hitchhiking and wandering all over the U.S. and Mexico on my own. After about nine months of that, I found out I wanted to do something else - go back to college, and succeed. And I did.

But what of that "wasted" freshman year? Of course, it wasn't wasted at all. I learned my limitations, learned what I had to do to overcome them, and returned to school not only determined to succeed, but even somewhat mature (it's amazing what being on your own for a bunch of time can do for you).

So in some ways, my freshman year was the best experience I ever could have had. If I'd merely gotten by that year, I might've learned how to be nothing more than mediocre for the rest of my time in college.

Plus something else: My best friend from my freshman year is still my best friend, and has been the entire time.

Finally, try to maintain your humor and perspective about your mistakes. It's not always easy, for sure, but keep in mind one vital truth - whatever mistake you made, it's not the end of the world.

In fact, there's only one thing that is the end of the world and that's the end of the world.



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