I’ve never been a perfectionist. I never colored inside the lines of my princess coloring books. I never had good handwriting, and the part in my hair was never entirely straight. But I’ve always had perfection on my mind, in the way I’m sure every other overachieving University student does. I want to be the perfect student, daughter and friend, and I try hard not to make mistakes while striving to be all those things. However, the esteemed English Prof. John Rubadeau mentioned something this past week in class that really got my wheels turning. He told my class to look at our pencils and asked us what was on the top. Well, of course the answer was an eraser. The lesson? Pencils have erasers because the users are expected to make mistakes — simple as that. Everyone learns from the time they’re in elementary school that it’s ok to make mistakes and that people learn from their mistakes. But, in an environment as competitive as the University, the long-taught lesson is easily forgotten. Sure it’s important to work hard and strive to do your best, but it’s not always about that extra club position or the A+ papers. Sometimes, it’s just about learning, and if that learning comes from making mistakes, so be it.
This lesson rings true for me the most in my writing. The key to writing is rewriting, says my professor. The key is to mess up, and then fix the mess you made. Students shouldn’t be afraid to go to a professor or tutor with “stupid” questions because it is by asking those questions and making the mistakes in the first place that the student learns. For me, the pencil-eraser analogy is more of a type and delete scenario, as I know it is for many students. But even the computer doesn’t truly let students realize their own mistakes, as the computer has spell-check and a built-in thesaurus. I’ll be honest, I’d be lost without spell-check, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt me to see my mistakes pointed out by someone other than the Microsoft paper clip helper, as I hardly register my mistakes when they are auto-corrected without my knowing. While it might take a bit more effort to notice and correct my mistakes, the extra work is worth it.
Learning from mistakes doesn’t only apply to writing. It is applicable in all walks of life, embodying everything from lackluster jobs and internships, to failed relationships and business endeavors. If not for making the mistake of accepting the first internship I was offered this past summer — which turned out to be very disappointing — I wouldn’t have realized my passion for an entirely different field of work. Many of the world’s great discoveries resulted from mistakes, including post-it notes, chocolate chip cookies, and America, to name a few. The examples could go on for pages, but I’m sure each reader has a similar example of his or her own.
I know all too many students who stress over A’s vs. A+’s, suffer from a too heavy workload and endlessly plan all aspects of their daily lives hoping to portray themselves as the perfect package, or rather the perfect job candidate. But striving for perfection and being afraid of making a mistake can inhibit students from taking risks that will challenge them, and ultimately will stifle creativity and experimentation — essential tools for learning and achievement in life. So although it seems cliché, I can only hope that students take a second to remind themselves of this childhood lesson, as it applies as much at the age of 20 as it did at age 9 — if not more. So, we all know that it is always good to strive to be your best, but ultimately, if you make some mistakes along the way, well, that’s what erasers are for.
Leah Potkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org