by Lisabeth Saunders Medlock, Ph.D: We have all heard the sayings “To err is human” and “you live and you learn”…
We make mistakes every day, large and small, failures and faux pas. But failure and mistakes still don’t feel like an awesome learning opportunity. I know it is my shortcomings that make me unique and that I should embrace the stumbles and screw ups. But it is a challenge for me and a challenge for many of us. We live and act in ways to prevent mistakes — not taking risks, expanding our comfort zones or jumping outside the boxes we hide in. But our mistakes and failures are gifts, gems, guideposts in our learning and growth as people. So embrace failures, mistakes, screw ups and shortcomings because they not only make us uniquely who we are, but also teach us powerful lessons like the nine below.
1. Mistakes teach us to clarify what we really want and how we want to live. The word mistake derives meaning only by comparison to what we desire, what we see as success. Noticing and admitting our mistakes helps us get in touch with our commitments—what we really want to be, do, and have. Mistakes wake us up and focus our attention like a flashing sign that says “fix this”. The urgency created causes us to focus on issues or problems that make us feel off track. Working on possible solutions, redefining what we want or expect, or reexamining our values or goals can lead us to more clarity about our path.
2. Mistakes teach us to accept ourselves and that we can be flawed and be loved. We can fully appreciate ourselves, even while acknowledging our screw ups. It is possible to laugh at our mistakes and then work hard to correct them. Most of us have a long history of putting ourselves down when we blow it. But it’s a self-defeating habit we must break so that we can start appreciating ourselves, mistakes and all. People who love and care about us will stick with us through all our flaws and floundering. Our not so perfectness is what makes us unique and we are loved for it. So we should give ourselves a break.
3. Mistakes teach us to accept our fallibility and face our fear. Sometimes even our best efforts just don’t work out. We might do everything possible to achieve a certain result and still fail, again and again. When this happens we can admit that we’re stuck. Facing mistakes often takes us straight to the heart of our fears. And when we experience and face those fears, they can disappear. When we are stuck and admit that we can’t do it alone it sends a signal and opens the door for help to show up. People, resources, and solutions will appear, especially when we ask for help.
4. Mistakes teach us about ourselves and how to tell our truth. It is natural to want to cover up our mistakes or be embarrassed by them. To feel like we wish we had a handy mistake eraser or remover. But being honest about our failures and limitations offer us opportunities to practice telling the truth. Admitting the truth allows us to expand our knowledge of self-to know who we are. And thus, increases our capacity to change. It is like holding up a mirror to ourselves and really seeing. When we tell others about our mistakes, to let them really see us, it allows us to let go of the embarrassment, shame and blame we may feel so that we can concentrate on learning and growing.
5. Mistakes teach us, through analysis and feedback, about what works, and what doesn’t. It’s a reality check. When we experience the consequences of mistakes, we get a clear message about which of our efforts are working—and which are not. The feedback we get from our mistakes can be the most specific, pointed, and powerful feedback we’ll ever get. Many times we can trace mistakes to recurring patterns of belief or behavior—things we do, say, and think over and over again. When we spot and change a habit we may find that other areas of our lives change for the better. One way to gain maximum benefit from mistakes is to examine them through the filter of powerful questions: “How can I use this experience?”; “What will I do differently next time?”; “How will I be different in the future?” Questions like these lead to an inquiry that invites solutions.
6. Mistakes teach us to take responsibility. Sometimes our instinctive reaction to a mistake is to shift blame elsewhere: “It’s not my fault.” “You never told me about that,” Or the classic “I don’t see how this has anything to do with me.” It is more empowering to look for our role in the mistake. Taking responsibility for a failure may not be fun. But the act of doing so points out what we can do differently next time. Investigating our role reminds us that our choices and our actions have a huge influence on the quality of our lives.
7. Mistakes teach us about integrity. Mistakes often happen when we break promises, over-commit, agree to avoid conflict or fail to listen fully. Big mistakes often start as small errors. Over time, tiny choices that run counter to our values or goals can accumulate into breakdowns. Even our smallest choices have power, so it is important we pay attention to the integrity of the choices we make every day. Mistakes can be a signal that our words and our actions are out of alignment. In that case, we can re-examine our intentions, reconsider our commitments, and adjust our actions.
8. Mistakes teach us to engage in our lives — to live fully. We are not our behaviors and we are more than our mistakes. We can remember that our history does not have to predict our future. And then remember that we have an opportunity to go all in—to participate fully. Many people, when faced with a big mistake, begin to pull back—to retreat. Instead, we can use the failure as evidence that we are growing, risking, and stretching to meet our potential. Mistakes help us to remember that we are not content to play it safe. That we understand that without risk there is sometimes no reward.
9. Mistakes allow us to inspire others. They may be inspired when we are courageous and make our private struggles public. They might decide to live differently. When a lifelong smoker who’s dying of emphysema talks about the value of being smoke-free, we’re apt to listen. The same kind of contribution also occurs when we speak candidly about less serious mistakes. As parents we can teach our children that it is OK to fail because we are willing to let them see our failures and mistakes. This gives us opportunities to talk through what we could or would have done differently. These are powerful lessons for those around us.