Lessons for a Positive College Experience (Part 4: Be Prepared to Fail)

BY Mark Magnuson

A 5-part series on how to harness the energy of your college experience to become a lifelong learner whose knowledge transcends facts and figures.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of taking risks. If you’re prepared to take risks, then you should also prepare yourself to make mistakes and possibly even fail…miserably. Only by accepting your own mistakes and failures can you learn from them and develop the self-confidence to keep trying and succeed. Of course if you keep failing by making the same mistake… well that’s another story.

Lesson #4: Be Prepared to Fail and Make Mistakes
One of my most memorable failures came on a cold, late November day in the front window of Johnson’s Sport and Camera Store, located on quaint Main Street in my hometown of Jamestown, New York. Mr. Johnson sold film, cameras and accessories to the shutterbugs in the local community. In the photo above, the building on the right of “The Pub” once wore the proud storefront of Johnson’s Sport and Camera. It’s sad that today downtown Jamestown NY has gone the way of most small northern cities.

Mr. Johnson believed in the power of the window display, and I had convinced him to pay me $25 to produce a holiday-themed display during the winter of 1976. My plan was to create a holiday tree with film canisters and film supplies as ornaments. Imagine a green Christmas tree filled with Kodak yellow. To create a look in the window that would stand out from what customers would see for most of the year, it was my plan to move a wall of three 6’ tall bookshelves that divided the front window from the inside of the store. As I was moving the second bookcase, I saw in slow motion the third bookcase falling towards the 10’ x 10’ plate glass front window. Imagine my horror as I witnessed the bookcase breaking through the glass and shattering into a zillion pieces. Instantly, the store filled with freezing air, and the front window area started to collect the enormous snowflakes that were falling outside. Each one seemed to mock me as they drifted in and landed on the rubble of my magnificent display, which now lay covered in a mosaic of shattered glass and broken expectations.

The fire department had to be called to come and place a tarp over the window. Luckily the emergency glass company was able to replace the window within hours. And fortunately, Mr. Johnson had insurance to replace a $500 plate glass window.

This project was my first freelance commission, and I had failed miserably. However, I did not let this incident deter me from pursuing my passion. The moment the damage was repaired, I returned to Johnson’s Camera Store, and I completed my installation. Naturally, I made things right by not charging for that service! I kept doing this kind of work, and it helped pay for me to go to art school.

Moral of Lesson #4: If you don’t fail, you’ll never really learn
Why is it important that we fail and make mistakes at some point? Learning to accept our own mistakes and failures teaches us to develop the self-confidence to keep learning and keep trying. Unfortunately, I see many young professionals who become defeated or defined by their mistakes. They were raised to think that everyone is a winner, like everyone gets a trophy. The key is to learn from our mistakes–not let them define us. We learn, and we keep going.

I encourage you to learn from other people’s mistakes, too. That’s even better, of course, because then you don’t have to live through the trauma yourself! This third-person learning is why I see value in studying history. History may not be the most popular class in school, but there are thousands of years of recorded history of countless mistakes. Use that information to avoid pitfalls yourself! Plus, the mistakes of others may help us understand context in the present, which helps us make better decisions on a daily basis.

One of the prerequisites for learning to accept your mistakes will come from Lesson 5: Leave Your Ego Behind.

This post is part of a 5-part series:

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