Life-changing realizations rarely happen the first time we encounter a concept. It can take weeks, or more commonly years, for us to experience a sudden moment of understanding.
This has major implications.
Common sense tells us that we should learn from our mistakes. Well, as Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.”
Some of the best learning available comes from failure. This learning can be intellectual- like trying and failing to solve a math problem. Or this learning can be moral- realizing that revenge and bitterness is self destructive, it eats away at your own soul.
In order to really learn from our mistakes we need to be deliberate. We need to spend time thinking about why we failed. The kernel of folly is to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. Every time we complete a project, achieve a milestone, or fall on our faces we have a chance to become our own teachers. The opportunity is especially rich when we fail. A lot can be learned in the post-mortem examination of disappointment. About life. About ourselves.
Nothing shocking about that.
But there is another amazing opportunity that is lurking in our failures. And that is the idea of serendipity. Serendipity is an accidental discovery. It is a happy accident. It is the pleasant surprise of looking for one thing, and finding something else, often something entirely different yet wonderful. And many of the most amazing advances in human knowledge and culture have been made “by accident.” And this is more common than you might think. Penicillin, microwaves, Velcro, Teflon, vulcanized rubber, Coca-Cola, radioactivity, the Post-it note, and Viagra were all the result of “accidental discoveries.” In reality the list is much longer.
According to Steven Johnson in his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” one of the key elements in taking advantage of serendipity is paying attention. Evidently small versions of these accidental discoveries are all around us, but we may miss them if we don’t recognize them. And we won’t recognize them if we don’t slow down and pay attention. This involves taking the time to think about what is happening and why.
Here is another reason to be willing to fail and to learn from your failures. You might learn how to do better next time. Or you might discover something else altogether. Something that could change the world forever.