When I was four, I got a piece of Lego stuck up my nose. It was a blue, transparent cylinder, commonly used as a police siren (by connoisseurs of Lego such as myself). It got up my nose by sheer force of curiosity and made a whistling sound every time I exhaled (not unlike the sound Alan Partridge makes when he is stressed).
When I was eleven (or was I twelve?), I scored a try. In a moment of hubris, I rose from scoring to proclaim my victory (it was a tiny informal game after school with no more than five a side). We probably weren’t even playing by any remotely recognizable rules, other than passing backwards and diving over the line to score. In any case, I rose to find that I’d scored my try on a dog turd. My t-shirt was smeared with excrement and my try was somewhat eclipsed.
When I was 17, I worked at a famous theme park (Thorpe Park), delivering ice cream in boxes to each kiosk from the back of a Suzuki van. I was in the industrial freezer one day, stacking boxes of Tangle Twisters, Feasts and whatnot, when I was seized by an irresistible urge.
The boxes of ice cream were organized in small metal cages on wheels. The metal glistened with ice. I licked the frozen metal.
I can still vividly picture a small patch of my taste buds stuck to the metal. I have an even more vivid memory of the searing pain as I removed my tongue from the frozen metal.
From each of these “moments of madness”, I learned something. Obvious things like “never play rugby where people walk their dogs” or “Lego is for building not sniffing”.
Now, as something that approximates to an adult, my mistakes are far less dramatic and less obviously stupid. But it still seems to me that I remember risk-laden failure (usually borne of willful experimentation) with greater vividness than any other more benign learning experience.
It’s tempting to extrapolate this and make a grand conclusion about fostering a learning environment where an element of risk and experimentation is rewarded. Perhaps a better conclusion is that my parents should have supervised me more closely.
In any case, learning comes with a conscious realization. Sometimes we need to get our t-shirts dirty. Or as I like to tell anyone who will listen: sometimes we need to lick the frozen metal.