Mistakes are a fundamental part of the human condition — almost as much as our fear of making them. Because of the way we’re designed and the reality we live in, we’re imperfect creatures limited by our experience, perspective and the momentum of habit. It’s natural that these things would push us to do something we regret from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as we learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons to what we do moving forward, they act as a valuable tool for self-improvement. So why are we so often paralyzed by the mere possibility of screwing up, and why do we find it so hard to own up or forgive others for what they’ve done? I think it’s because we’re socially conditioned to think of mistakes as an aberration that we somehow have the power to avoid, and until we recognize that and reckon with it our relationship with our mistakes will be unbalanced.
It’s simply impossible to avoid making any mistakes at any point in our lives, but we all live with the unspoken narrative that we must aim for perfection and nothing less than success will do. As we move through school, we’re conditioned to learn that mistakes lead to lower grades and failed classes, parental disapproval, disappointment from your teachers, the limiting of future opportunities. We’re constantly under the threat of dire consequences resulting from our mistakes, to the point that it’s more important to study for the test than it is to actually absorb information. Even when we leave the gauntlet of testing, that template for life informs everything we do. Through a crucial 12-year period of our lives, a deeply seeded fear of being wrong is cultivated within us.
We walk through our lives terrified of being wrong or worse, being seen as ignorant. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned as a tech professional is how much energy is spent at work covering our own mistakes and deficiencies; instead of admitting when we’ve messed up or that we don’t know something (even when maybe we should), we forge ahead without stopping to take the opportunity to better ourselves. Maybe this inclination isn’t entirely down to our history. Maybe our managers or colleagues foster an environment where asking questions or addressing mistakes are an annoyance at best and career-ending at worst. Because no one makes room for our imperfection, we never think to give that space to ourselves.
So our mistakes and ignorance become a source of shame, something we have to hide. And when there’s a risk of exposure, we panic — the subconscious memory of bad grades, parent-teacher conferences, ostracization and ridicule seizes our lizard brain and short-circuits our ability to cope. There’s this implication of a “set mindset”, that we as adults should be fully-formed and know about anything we come across. If we don’t, then we’re failures; everyone can see the “F” branded on our foreheads. Because the state of our knowledge is frozen, we freeze when we learn our knowledge is incomplete.
We internalize the idea that no one will forgive us for the mistakes we make, or the things we do not know. We learn that we can’t forgive ourselves for them. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, we sure as hell can’t forgive other people. If we’re expected to know everything and get it right the first time, how can we expect anything less from other people?
So when the mistakes and imperfections of others are exposed, we try to make it as visible as possible so the offense can never be hidden or denied. We demand that they look at what their ignorance has led them to and apologize for it. We demand the most severe consequences — expulsion from our communities, the end of their careers, exile into the social and professional desert. We demand the performance of remorse, the acceptance of their punishment, the enforcement of their disappearance. But what if one of our mistakes was exposed in all of its ugliness? How hard would it be to reckon with it, all laid bare for everyone to see? How impossible would it be to deal with the personal shame and self-doubt while the harshest criticisms rain down from the people in your community? Could you have the presence of mind to construct the perfect apology, accept the hyperbolic disparagement of your character, submit to the exile demanded of you? Could you resist the urge to push back or deflect blame, even a little?
I’m not saying that we should simply brush off mistakes or ignorance — when spotted, they should be exposed. We have to look our flaws honestly, but we have to know that we’re trying to do so in order to learn the lessons we need from them. If we’re too paralyzed by fear of exposure and deep shame, there’s just not enough room for us to grow.
I should also be clear that not every transgression is a “mistake” or the result of ignorance. Some actions are the result of willful malice, and some people use ignorance as cover for the consequences of that. It’s a bad-faith tactic that must also be exposed for what it is. Acceptance of mistakes and tolerance of ignorance can be tempered with with the expectation that all of us be accountable for our actions and their consequences.
But we don’t have to make those consequences so drastic that honest mistakes upend the lives of the people who make them. We can allow for our imperfection while still working to make sure we learn how to be mindful of it. Accepting our own ignorance and capacity to really fuck up every once in a while softens the tension we have with our own flaws. We can learn to embrace the messiness of our condition gently, with compassion. We can extend that compassion from ourselves to others. We can forgive ourselves and other people, and in the space that creates we can develop into braver, kinder people.
I think it has to start with us, so I’d like to recommend an exercise that consists of three basic steps. One, think about the last mistake you made or the last time you tried to cover up your own ignorance. Two, accept the mistake or ignorance by stating aloud (or as publicly as you’re comfortable with) what it was honestly. Three, forgive yourself by saying “I forgive myself for my mistake (or ignorance). I accept my imperfection with compassion.” and then state what you’ve learned from it.
I’ll start. I often make commitments — explicit or implicit — to help people or collaborate but then end up being very inconsistent or late with my end of things. I can think of so many people who’ve been disappointed by this, and whose work has been affected by my shortcoming. I sincerely apologize for not delivering the things I’ve promised in a timely or consistent manner.
I also forgive myself for this mistake. I accept my imperfection with compassion. I’ve learned to be more careful about my commitments, and to work harder to do the things I say I do when they’re expected of me. I’ll do my best to be better in the future.
We all make mistakes, and we’re all wrong at some point. Demanding perfection from ourselves and others, or demanding severe punishments for mistakes or ignorance, only deepens the training we’ve received to think of our natural imperfections as something unacceptable. It’s an unhealthy mindset that leads to unhealthy actions and a bad relationship with our own selves. In order to be kinder, more fearless, and happier, we have to examine our ingrained response to mistakes and give ourselves (and others) the room to grow and change.
And there’s no time like the present to start doing this. What mistake or bit of ignorance would you like to forgive within yourself?
3 thoughts on “(Self-Improvement) In Praise of Mistakes”
I’m reminded that during astronaut training in the 60s there was a clear decision from above: no one would be a failure. If an astronaut in training was having trouble with, say, the calculus of orbital rendezvous or with geology or with the workings of science experiments, they would not be dropped. They would get the extra training time, they would get the extra training support, that they needed until they were competent in the subject. And so someone who was falling behind had no fear of admitting it because they knew they would not get dropped from the program. They could get good whatever it took.
(The one exception was medical, where, yeah, there’s no training someone out of an inner-ear disorder. And this was the one field where astronaut/support-crew communication was terrible, astronauts reasonably fearing being banned from future flights if they reported anything.)
It’s easy to devote that kind of time and energy and resource to a handful of people in a high-priority, high-prestige project. But if we want people to do what they are able, couldn’t we start out with the assumption that we want to give people the support they need to at least be competent?
Self improvement is the way to go! Thank you for this!
There’s such a huge fear of failure in everything, but you’re right, we need to be easier on ourselves for our mistakes and on others. I especially have trouble with that. Sure there are places where mistakes have grave consequences, but most of the time, mistakes are made so much worse by the reaction to mistakes, internal and external than by the actual mistake itself. Honestly I wish I had the confidence and peer group of a rich white ivy league businessman\ ceo whose failures and even outright incompetence is just listed as ‘experience’.