I wouldn’t want to be 18 again. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to recommend it. For example, having a sound body—the unearned inheritance of many a fortunate youth—occupies the time and resources of most adults. And the sheer potential of a life mostly unlived is exciting and hope-filled.
But possibilities come with responsibility. After all, choices made in the here and now affect the courses of our lives. And the smallest adjustments made at the beginning of a journey have far greater effect on the outcome than even bigger changes made further on down the road. The funny thing in all of this is that our most difficult decisions are negotiated at precisely the point in life when we have the least amount of personal experience to guide us.
Samuel Butler, a Victorian satirist and translator of Homer, famously quipped, “Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”
That line seems right to me. A sophisticated instrument in the hands of an expert can sing subtle melodies. The problem, of course, is that experts are not born – they’re made. Even the most accomplished musicians produce only awkward screeching at the beginning.
What I take from this is that we need a bit of courage to get on with our violins. Most of us haven’t mastered much of anything when we get to college. There’s no telling if the plans we make for the weekend will work out well, let alone our classes, our majors, our careers. Failure is always a real possibility.
If we’re going to master our violins—really make them sing—we have to try. We have to do it with abandon and without the hope of immediate success. From my vantage point, therefore, the art of failure is the most important skill that college students can acquire – not failure from willful laziness (that is inexcusable) but failure from inexperience. It is the accumulation of these kinds of failures that produces excellence.
I’m telling you, it takes nerve to be 18—but try.
John Noble, Ph.D., is a professor of Bible and religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column reflects the views of the writer only.