Why Mistakes Are So Awesome

Jan 26

A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.

–James Joyce  

I’ve made a few mistakes lately. Frankly, it’s an everyday occurrence.  

I bet you make mistakes every day, too. Most of mine aren’t catastrophic: Forgetting to pay a bill, running an orange light, staying up too late (my one resolution is to have a reasonable, consistent bedtime).

Most of us make mistakes every day. We’re designed that way. It’s how we learn. It’s a cliché, but true–mistakes–if you pay attention–are your best teachers.  

But sometimes when we make a mistake we feel shame, anger, denial, blame and/or–my personal favorite–the need to punish ourselves.   

The psychological explanation for this is that as kids we have to learn the mores of our tribe or we’ll die.  So our caregivers reinforce the “don’t do that again,” lesson with anger, shouting, shaming, and castigation. It’s a matter of life and death, after all.

A New Response to Mistakes  

But now, as an adult, when I make a mistake, the same responses aren’t as useful.

 I can’t control other people’s reactions to my mistakes. Many of them have inconvenienced, embarrassed or hurt other people, and they get angry when this happens. Seems fair. I need to do my best to right the wrong and move on.

I don’t think it’s productive to react to our mistakes with shame and punishment.   

What if instead of thinking, “I made a mistake therefore I am defective,” we shifted the perspective to, “I made a mistake. I need to learn something here. What is it?”

So, in addition to my “reasonable bedtime” New Year’s resolution, I’m adding one more. I’m going to work on creating a culture that embraces mistakes in my business and my life.

 How about you? Have you considered the possibility that you could embrace mistakes? What would that be like for you in your business? In your personal life?

If you want to experiment with an alternative way to handle your mistakes besides the tried and true “I’m so stupid! How could I have done that??” method, choose a mistake you made today, and ask yourself: 

  1. What was the mistake? 
  2. What lesson or lessons is the mistake trying to help me learn?
  3. Why is this lesson important?
  4. What will I do differently now that I know this?

How do you feel about the mistake now? Learn anything? Comment below.

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2 comments

  1. It’s amazing how much of society alleges to encourage success, yet dreadfully fears mistakes, seems crazy, especially when you consider how much mistakes have to teach us about ourselves and of life.

    I love the scene in “Meet the Robinson’s” where an experiment with a peanut butter and jelly contraption goes wrong at the end of a family dinner, there’s a moment of pause and silence, where it feels like the criticism is about to begin, and then absolute outbursts of celebration and congratulations of the mistake come flowing out of every family member joyfully.

    The quote that stands out to me is “From mistakes we learn, from success, not so much”.

    We tell our kids, “everybody makes mistakes, and smart people, learn from them, and make changes”.

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