Mistakes are the portals of discovery - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Mistakes are the portals of discovery

“One door closing often reveals another opening, so having a longer perspective is key – don’t let those failures define you; rise over them instead”

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” So wrote James Joyce in his 1922 modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Seven years later, in an interview with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is one from which we learn nothing.” Edison himself is said to have opined, “I have not failed; I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work!” At the turn of the millennium, Louis Sachar suggested in his novel Holes that “Mistakes are the proof that you are trying.” Seven years earlier, the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, writing in his thought-provoking novel The Valkyries, said, “It is better to make a thousand mistakes than to think you know everything and not make any.”

From a veterinary perspective, I’m not sure that last quote is one to hold on to when you’re in the middle of a cat spay where you can’t find the ovaries, and the nurse quietly points out that she can see the testes. It’s a mistake you only make once, of course –  you’ll undoubtedly learn to check the sex before starting to cut from then on! But the student who is crestfallen after failing an exam needs to know that failure is an integral part of progress. That isn’t a quote from anyone else, so put it down as Williams, 2024!

The student who is crestfallen after failing an exam needs to know that failure is an integral part of progress

The leadership expert John Maxwell says, “Your mistakes do not define you: they educate, empower and enable you to reach your true potential.” That is from a book entitled Failing Forward, published in 2000. He tells the reader of Vincent Van Gogh, who failed as an art dealer, didn’t get into theological college, was fired by his church after an attempt at missionary endeavours and only sold one painting four months before he died. Now, to my mind, that shows resilience, not really learning from your mistakes, but the two do go hand in hand. Remember that Einstein’s headmaster expelled him from school, saying he would never amount to anything. Maybe that was a stimulus to work harder, with results both generally and especially relative!

My great friend Mary Brancker, the first female president of the British Veterinary Association and awardee of a CBE for her work in the veterinary profession, qualified to be a vet in 1937. Seventy years later, I encouraged the RCVS to organise a dinner to celebrate this remarkable achievement. I anticipated it would be in the summer, so was perplexed to find the Royal College holding the event in December. With mock fury, Mary told me that for 70 years she had managed to hide the fact she failed her finals not once but twice, only passing them in December 1937, but now everyone knew!

For me and so many others, one door closing often reveals another opening, so having a longer perspective is key – don’t let those failures define you; rise over them instead

I must admit that I also failed my diploma exams in ophthalmology, not once but twice, and was told not to try again. But that hasn’t stopped me from spending my life treating eyes – in fact, I’m just now waiting for a cat with entropion and a corneal sequestrum to go to sleep before operating. I try to pass on the “try, try and try again” lesson that this failure taught me to my students. Actually, the Animal Health Trust decided they had to “let me go” after that exam disaster, together with my failure to get a half-a-million-pound grant from the Wellcome Trust: if I couldn’t bring in the money, they couldn’t keep me. Two decades later, of course, it was financial failure that brought them down.

Sadly, there’s not a happy ending to that story. But for me and so many others, one door closing often reveals another opening, so having a longer perspective is key – don’t let those failures define you; rise over them instead. As Winston Churchill said (and this is my last quote of the day): “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Sadly, the cat is now happily anaesthetised and ready for surgery, so I will have to end this column (at least for this month!).

David Williams

Fellow and Director of Studies at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at the vet school in Cambridge.


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