Making Mistakes Count

As the Middle School knows from a story or two at announcements, I have taken on a home improvement project that is just outside my range of knowledge. To make matters worse, my project is renovating a bathroom, which involves plenty of plumbing. I like to take on projects and learn new things, but with a project like this mistakes quickly turn into magnificent water fountains and all the subsequent mopping. The winter break afforded me time to work on this project, but there I was leaving the hardest items to the last minute and working last Sunday to replace the two water supply lines in the wall in the bathroom.

My knowledge of soldering copper pipes is not extensive but I like to use the torch. So I began with some enthusiasm and a great deal of concentration to assemble the elbows and pipes to make the twists and turns to move the supply lines into the new wall. That enthusiasm quickly turned to frustration as the solder refused to melt properly, the first assemblage broke in two, and then I cut my finger.

With my wife’s words to call the plumber in my head, I carefully weighed if this was the time to give in. Had I worked hard? Yes. Had I given myself the time it took to do this job? I probably could have started earlier, but I had put in several good hours by that point. Did I want to keep going or not? This was a tough one. I knew I was ready to stop – I was bleeding now, after all – and I was probably ready to let my wife be right, but I was not quite ready to give up on the possible satisfaction of knowing I could do it myself. Plus, I had not yet used all my resources.

After a quick consultation with a more experienced friend, I was back on my way to the store to get more elbows and copper pipe. My patience was gone but now at least I had a few theories to test out about how to improve my results. Had I used the right flux? Had I cleaned the inside of the couplings enough? Had I positioned the joints to flow right? I set to answering these questions and soon my eagerness was back, trying to figure out how to do something that clearly had seemed beyond my capabilities a few hours earlier. Time flew by. I carried the pipes upstairs and installed them in the old wall. They looked shiny and bright now that they were connected to the much older pipes. I felt sick to my stomach as we turned the water back on in the basement. I waited for the fountain. The joints held. It had worked.

On our first morning back in school, I told this story about my own learning to help our students think of their own stories they might tell in their upcoming conferences with parents and advisors. I had met the edge of what I thought I could do, I had tried really hard and still had not found satisfactory results, and I had wanted to give in. A sense of pride, personal satisfaction, and remembering to ask for help kept me going and ultimately helped me reach the goal. Still I wondered: Did I need to experience the failure part? Why hadn’t I been able to ask for help before trying and failing on my own? Perhaps that is the reality – or curse? – of being a learner. The motivation and the challenge come from the same place: wanting to figure out how to do something that I could not do on my own. If I was not motivated to try it on my own first, I probably was never going to find the drive to meet the challenge in the end. If all I wanted was to get the job done, I would have called the plumber. Instead I wanted to learn how to do it, which meant I was destined to face all the messy, soggy mistakes.

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