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Holten: A not-so-big mistake

Have you ever made a mistake? Of course you have. The world is an imperfect place.

But do you know what? It’s imperfect by design, which means that what you thought was a mistake might not actually be a mistake at all. In other words, our imperfection is part of the formula for our perfection.

You see, according to Mr. Dictionary, a mistake is an error in action, calculation, opinion or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness and insufficient knowledge. In other words, it’s a misunderstanding or misconception.

Or is it?

Kevin Holten There are instances when errors have eventually become things that you and I would not consider having been the result of an error at all. For example, John Pemberton was a pharmacist who desperately tried to create a medical remedy for his headaches by dumping a bunch of ingredients into a kettle, but he failed. Nevertheless, in the process, he concocted a recipe for something that has since earned billions of dollars and which we now refer to as Coca-Cola.

In 1968, there was a scientist by the name of Spencer Silver working for the 3M Company who was trying to create an extra-strong adhesive and failed. Instead, he created a very weak adhesive that would peel off when removed from any surface and not leave behind a residue. Another scientist by the name of Art Fry thought Silver’s mistake might be something that could be useful and the result is a product we now refer to as “Post-it Notes.”

In 1879, there was a chemist by the name of Constantine Fahlberg who spent the day working with coal tar. When he went home to have dinner with his wife, he made the mistake of sitting down and eating without washing his hands and discovered, while eating, that everything he put in his mouth had a very sweet taste to it. That’s when he realized that the saccharin on his hands could serve as a very nice artificial sweetener. The rest is history.

Do you chew gum? You wouldn’t if someone had not made a mistake. In the late 1800s, Thomas Adams was trying to create a rubber replacement out of natural latex, failed and — for no particular reason — put a piece of it into his mouth and realized that the material he created was surprisingly enjoyable to chew on. So he added flavors and now you can have better breath and blow amazingly big bubbles.

In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson was experimenting with different ways of making homemade soda pop and made the mistake of leaving a batch sitting outside with a stir stick left in it. That night, temperatures dropped and the next morning he went outside to find frozen treats on the front porch. His mistake led to the creation of popsicles.

In 1930, Toll House Inn co-owner Ruth Graves Wakefield of Whitman, Mass., was baking a chocolate dessert when she realized she had failed to purchase the required amount of chocolate. So she dumped Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate chips in the batter instead, and when the chips did not melt as planned, her mistake eventually led to the creation, in 1939, of “Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels.”

So, you see, mistakes are not really mistakes at all. In fact, living life without any of the above products is almost inconceivable, leading one to wonder if the recipe for fate and destiny doesn’t usually include a spoonful of “mistake,” a pinch of “error” and a cup of “boo-boo.”

Salvador Dali, the prominent Spanish surrealist painter once said, “Have no fear of perfection because you’ll never reach it.”

I disagree, because I don’t believe you can achieve perfection without imperfection, or large stakes without mistakes.

So remember that the next time you make a mistake, it might not be a mistake at all.

Holten is the manager of The Drill and writes a weekly column for The Dickinson Press. Email him at