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Dave McElhinny: Without happy accidents, the world would be a very different place

Dave McElhinny
| Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

As I sat, minding my own business, seeing how many pink, square erasers I could stack on the back of my hand without them falling over, Miss Fisher shouted my name, causing me to knock down the erasers. She called on me because she clearly knew I was daydreaming and wanted to make an example of me. Imagine my English teacher's shock when I got the answer to her question correct. You see, she asked me to come up with two pronouns. I didn't hear the question, so I answered with, “Who, me?”

Luckily, those are both pronouns.

She then squinted at me, knowing that was luck, and said, “Mr. McElhinny! Give me one more.” I blanked, but since I thought it was unfair and she should call on somebody else, I said. “What about them?”

To her dismay, “them” is also a pronoun. I went three-for-three without even knowing it, something one of the more gifted students pointed out to me after class.

That is called a happy accident, and without them, the world would be a very different place.

The world we live in is punctuated by happy accidents. Stainless Steel, Penicillin, X-rays, Velcro, beer, Super Glue, Teflon and microwave ovens were all created by accident.

A multi-billion dollar little, blue pill was originally created to treat angina and hypertension, but the early tests showed the pill did little to help with those conditions. However, it did produce an interesting side effect. Pfizer quickly did some drug repositioning, and Viagra grew to epic proportions — from a sales point of view, of course.

In the mid-1940s, naval engineer Richard James was developing sensitive springs meant to keep fragile equipment steady on ships, but without much success. When one of his new springs fell from a shelf, he watched it do that famous walk down the shelves, and his invention was born. Since then, an estimated 350 million Slinkys have been sold.

When you break it down, life is one, big trial and error. From the baby who burns his hand on a hot stove to the $100 billion expense of fixing computers before Y2K could end the world, we all learn as we go.

As for me, on that day so long ago, I learned an important lesson, too. I learned to keep on trying and that if I concentrated and worked harder, I could achieve anything.

So the very next day, using the failure of the day before, I did just that. I showed up to school with a new attitude and focus. Besting everybody in the class, I balanced a record 14 erasers on the back of my hand, the first kid to ever break double-digits. To this day, I believe that record is intact.

Dave McElhinny is the North Bureau Chief for the Tribune-Review. Reach him at dmcelhinny@tribweb.com or via Twitter @DaveMcTrib.

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