The Jolly Librarian Ponders Mistakes and Failures

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. Albert Einstein

Today, a colleague and I attended a campus function where there was food: hamburgers, popcorn, and cookies. As we walked back to the library, my colleague suddenly looked crestfallen. “I ate so many cookies,” she announced. “I’m a failure.”

“You’re not a failure,” I replied. “You just suffered a setback. And you have plenty of time to turn today around.” But I could tell that in her mind, she really was a failure, at least for this day.

This “all or nothing” thinking is also prevalent among students and gets in the way of their success and happiness. For example, let’s take Student A, who thinks to be successful in college, she must have a 4.0. But the pursuit of this one perfect number has kept her stressed and prevented her from reaching what should be her major goal: earning a degree. She refuses to take courses that might be too hard, drops others when they show the first sign of difficulty, and, while people who started classes with her have long moved on, is still trying to finish up basic requirements. There’s nothing wrong with having high standards, but when those standards prevent you from achieving what you want in life, then they need to be re-examined.

There are several other problems with this type of thinking:

  • When we must have perfection, then we tend to work on things that are too easy or we already know–because they are only types of things where we have a chance of being perfect.
  • Similarly, when we demand perfection, to keep from blaming ourselves, we too easily try to blame others.
  • If the only two options are all or nothing, then chances are that most of the time we’re going to have to pick nothing. Therefore, a slip-up at lunch means a failure at a diet. A poor test score means I’m dumb and should drop the course instead of l should learn how to study more effectively.

As Einstein points out, mistakes are a natural part of learning new things. And college should be about learning new things. And so should life.

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