Made a mistake? Learn from it!

Failure isn’t an end; it’s an experience

I’m one of those people who beats himself up when he makes a mistake. Natural perhaps, but self-flagellation as a learning experience is only effective if it’s followed up with self-improvement, and that process of growing through our anguished moments only begins when we stop writhing, forgive ourselves, and get on with the job of repairing the damage while figuring out ways to avoid making the same mistake again.

Forgiving, of course, isn’t the same as forgetting. Rather, it’s the deliberate act of putting our errors into context. I’m human; I make mistakes. That’s the basic equation. To beat myself up for more than a couple of seconds over a typical faux pas becomes counter productive – I’m so busy grinding myself into dust, so concerned about making another mistake, that I’m afraid to do anything. It’s when we are able to step back, analyze a mistake the way a sympathetic coach would, then consider how to slingshot out of it, that we are able to grow.

Growing – as in the phrase ‘growing up’ – is not a process that ends with puberty. In fact, the most enriching phases of growth and self-improvement can come late in life, when we have learned how to grow. We’re not plants, or insects, or mammals bound by instinct. We’re never completely adult, in that sense. Humanity’s niche in the spectrum of life is as thinking, adaptable spirit. We are the species best able to figure out ways of succeeding in almost any environment, and discovering new possibilities. Making mistakes is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Scaling that statement down to the personal, I have to ask myself what types of learning outcomes I can possibly derive from a misstep? It’s important to understand what kind of signals I’m receiving via the ouch-loop, or in the ‘Gawd no!’ reflex that smacks me on the forehead when I’ve made a more serious blunder. I can think of two obvious decisions to be made based on the cumulative evidence of my errors: I can decide I have to learn to do something I want to do better; or I can learn I’m not meant to be doing something I thought I wanted to.

Of course there’s a million shades between, but those two considerations lay at the root of my decision-making process moving forward – whether the process is triggered by the pain of error, or the blaze of a wahoo! inspirational moment.

To scale things back up again, those are the trial and error questions we as a species need to ask continuously, if we want to survive and achieve a sustainable, equitable and expanding future. For me as an individual, embarrassment and social castigation are the most likely outcomes of any slip-ups I might make; for us as a species, the stakes are much higher, and our ability to overcome collective pride and anguish so that we make good decisions requires Herculean exertions of leadership.