Off Campus

A mistake

Reading time: 3 minutes

“I have not failed 1,000 times.  I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.” a famous quote from Thomas Edison. He doesn’t say he made a mistake. And it is clear that he needed to find a 1000 ways how not to make a light bulb in order to find the one that works. Mistakes are necessary in the process of learning and development. Why is then our entire educational system built on the assumption that making errors is a bad thing?

 Every time children make a mistake in school they get punished for it. They either get a bad grade or the teacher simply corrects them in front of all their classmates. They are educated to believe that the worst thing they can do is make a mistake. Consequently, they start fearing mistakes, which kills creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and talent. The distinctive qualities children naturally possess are being suppressed.

– What do you see?

– I see an egg.

– No it’s incorrect. It’s an ellipse.

Children are initially fearless to think outside the box; they use their imagination to solve problems. But when they get discouraged, they start feeling insecure about their abilities. Because of their anxiety they start using the term “I can’t do this”, when they are actually perfectly capable of facing the challenge. Next time the teacher poses a question they don’t even start thinking of a solution. They get encouraged to stop using their imagination, and thus they get educated out of creativity. The constant fear of humiliation in front of their peers warns them off of speaking up. Imagine a situation where the teacher asks a question and you think you know the answer. But then you remember all the times you were wrong and he or she corrected you. You remember that you regretted ever speaking up and this time, to avoid feeling embarrassed, you decide to remain silent. Then you realise that you are better off not saying anything in class, because that way you exclude the possibility of making a mistake. This goes on and on in schools every day. These children then leave school and they look for the next “teacher” who will tell them what to do and what they did wrong. They become silent workers, part of the mass, whose entrepreneurial spirit was killed just when it was supposed to prosper.

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 Albert Einstein said “Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work“. It needs an extreme amount of effort to become very good at what we do. If teachers discourage us in the process of improving our skills, we might lose all interest at something we were initially talented at. For example think of a child who is very talented at mathematics. They have a test in class, and he makes a few mistakes. He is motivated to study harder to correct the mistakes, but the teacher doesn’t give him a chance. He gets “punished” for making those mistakes by getting a low grade. Consequently he starts believing that after all he is not that good at math, and because of the low grades he starts hating the subject. His motivation to advance was killed; a talent was suppressed and a genius will never be born.

 Of course, every system has its flaws. In this case the flaw is significant, but easy to fix. Children need to be encouraged to think independently, take initiative and to be  motivated to express their talents. They need to be discouraged of saying “I can’t do this” and taught to say instead “I can, if I really want to”. Instead of punishing them, schools should give them a chance to correct their errors and tell them that the only mistake they could ever make is to not even try to achieve something because of the fear of making a mistake. Edison was clearly not afraid. And we should all be thankful for that.

Sofija Sztepanov

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  1. Sergio Rinaudo

    Nice article. The only thing is that I don’t belive it will be easy to change our fear of mistakes. It’s linked with our culture, which is by nature the most difficult part to change. On this topic we should really learn the American lesson (and especially the Silicon Valley’s one).

  2. Attila Abonyi

    Dear Sofi,

    This is a great article indeed, it is definitely worth reading. I am happy to see that it is not only me who thinks that the education system has some serious issues. Still, as a university student of English language, I cannot help pointing out that there are some minor mistakes in the article:) They are mostly unremarkable ones, like not putting a comma after ‘Consequently’, so you should maybe re-read it to correct those mistakes:) Apart from that, the vocabulary used is quite academic and corresponds to the topic, so it is truly a great work. I am looking forward to reading more articles by you:)
    Best wishes,

  3. Sofija Sztepanov


    First, thanks to both of you!
    Sergio, I agree that fear of mistakes became a part of our culture, but culture is something that is different everywhere and changes all the time. I think it is time to start pointing out that mistakes are not bad, even useful, and encouraging people to take initiative and to face their fears. In my opinion the fear will never completely disappear, but the current situation could be improved.
    Attila, thank you, I noticed a few mistakes too and I will try to correct them as soon as possible 🙂

  4. Maria Teresa Bandini

    Well, Thomas Edison’s declaration rests on a very significant English expression. When, for instance, research leads to a good result, one says that said result is obtained “by trials and erros”.

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