I graduated in 1983, when computers were as mythical as they were monolithic. By 1986, the increased use of computer technology and down turn in the employment market had sent countless “re-entry students” to our local college campus. They were afraid of losing their jobs to technology while the rest of us were still trying to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up. I planned to go into teaching, and I loved studying English literature.
That’s how I found myself spending so much of my time in the one building that conveniently housed both departments. Between the two was the brain child of our English department chair: the Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI) Lab. Mrs. Frick’s vision was to introduce students to word processing by requiring them to submit papers created by software and printed by a dot matrix printer. It was innovative and fairly brilliant for its time, actually.
She opened the door to a room full of tables and outlets; the computers were on their way. All she needed now was the software and someone to teach that software. Mrs. Frick had the most amazing talent for setting the stage and wrapping up the presentation by explaining how much you were going to enjoy being a part of it. It took me a while to realize that she’d never really asked me to participate so much as to congratulate me on reaching a foregone conclusion. And it certainly was an exciting opportunity – there was nothing like this on our campus.
So there I stood, holding four floppy discs – at a time when they were still floppy. Each one was a software program that would allow students to type a paper in a revolutionary way. Each one had a handwritten label and a plain white, quite generic, envelope. I looked up from them and asked where the instructions were. Her smile was that of a young girl who knew she been naughty but hoped her sweetness would pardon her indiscretion.
“Well, they don’t really have instructions. I sort of borrowed them.”
I knew so little about software that I failed to recognize piracy when I held it in my hands. The only thing I understood was that I had no choice but to learn by trial and error. So I sat down at one of the two computers that had already been delivered, eventually figured out how to insert the floppy disc and turn on the computer – or was it turn on the computer and insert the floppy disc? As I learned, I made countless mistakes and lost many, many pages of work. And that, I discovered, was the best thing I could have done.
By the time the rest of the staff was ready for training and the students arrived to work on their first computer-generated papers, I had managed to make every single mistake they could possibly make. (At least once!) I knew why they made their mistakes and how to fix them. Most valuable, though, was the lesson that there was no mistake they would make that they couldn’t recover from. I knew they could command hardware and software because I had. They may have to start again at the beginning, but they could finish successfully.
They learned the hard way that they were now liberated from pressing the RETURN key at the end of each line as they had on a typewriter. It didn’t take long for them to learn to SAVE their document often. But the most important thing they learned was that they were not powerless. Yes, the world was changing faster than they had expected; but they had the ability to change with it. They learned to take control of technology rather than to cower at its feet in fear. They learned that it was never too late to learn to learn something new. But perhaps the most powerful thing they – and I – learned was that failure was not fatal. In fact, failure was a very effective educator.
Thomas Edison’s legacy wasn’t born from flawless trial and error. He understood the power of failure when he said, “I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.” In 1986, I learned something that would encourage and comfort me every day after. I didn’t have to know everything because I could learn anything. When I sometimes think that something is too difficult, I remind myself that it only seems that way because I don’t know how to do it yet. Once I know how, it will be easy.
Yes, failure is always possible, perhaps even inevitable. But fatal? Never.