• Stan D

The value of our mistakes

Nobody likes to make mistakes, right?

It's an interesting relationship that most people have with making mistakes and failing at something. What's your immediate reaction when you think about making a mistake? If you're like most people, then you probably want to avoid it.

Mistake = bad

There's a good argument for that - mistakes can be costly, they can hurt us, or the ones we love. Some mistakes can do damage and get us punished. If you think about it, this notion goes way back to our early stages of life.

Take a mental trip back to your childhood. What were you learning about mistakes back then? Do these seem familiar:

  • When you make mistakes in class you get lower grades. That gets you in trouble at home

  • When you make mistakes at home, you get punished and things you like get taken away from you

  • When you make mistakes in sports, the coach and the rest of the team get angry at you and you don't get picked the next game

The result? A built-in paradigm that we should avoid mistakes and try to do things perfectly. There's obviously value in judging how you're doing, compared to a certain standard. We all need benchmarks to help guide us through the areas where we should be improving. There is also benefit to negative consequences when we don't meet said standards, as otherwise why would anyone bother to improve?

Here's where our relationship with mistakes and failing gets interesting. There's so much proverbial wisdom out there that suggests making mistakes is Ok and natural. We've all heard these:

"I'm only human"

"No one is perfect"

"To err is human, to forgive divine"

Let's look at two extreme examples:

  1. Imagine you go all in and work incredibly hard to eliminate any mistakes from your life. You do your work 100% error free. You never say anything wrong to other people. You never break any rules, or mess up in any way. What would that look like? Is it a formula for exciting and fulfilling life? If you ask me, it sounds boring. It sounds like a pathway to living in a "defense mode" where you stick to predictable and repetitive activities.

  2. Now look at the other end of the spectrum - you mess up everything you touch. Every single task you perform ends up wrong. You never see anything through. You never get things right and so on. Where will that lead to? A mixture of chaos, fiascos, serial failures and lack of accomplishment and progress.

Obviously living in the extremes of this regard is not healthy. The sole purpose of eliminating mistakes from our life is not necessarily a good thing. My proposition is that there is value in making mistakes and they can turn out to be a great thing for us.

There's a saying that goes: "If you're the smartest kid in class, you're in the wrong class." Theoretical physicist and a Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek said that "If you're not making any mistakes, you're only solving problems that are too easy and that is a big mistake."

In other words, if you're winning every single game in life, perhaps you're not playing the right opponents, or the right game.

Here's a nice way of looking at things: mistakes are simply an indicator that you are not as good as you could be in a certain area. They don't mean you're a bad person. They are not a reflection of your self-worth, or potential for accomplishment.

The value of mistakes lies in the learning that we can extract from them. One thing I like to challenge my clients with is: I'm not so interested in what happened, I'm more interested in what you learned. In every situation where things did not go according to plan, there is the possibility of gaining valuable insight into you own performance and character. Some of the most important life lessons we will ever learn come as a result of making mistakes and failing.

There are countless of examples of people who have accomplished tremendous success, despite (or because of) having many failures along the way. Here are a few:

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple - the very company he founded. At the time it was a devastating blow that robbed him of his sole purpose in life. And yet he claims it was also the most productive and important time in his life. In a 2005 commencement , he told the graduates of Stanford University: “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Walt Disney was also fired. His editor at the Kansas City Star newspaper felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Then the first company he started, Laugh-O-Gram, went bankrupt. At one point, he was unable to pay his rent, however, he always regarded his failures as his teachers. He once said, “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me…You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."

Like Disney, Albert Einstein’s genius went unnoticed in his early years. He struggled with the strict, protocol of the instructors and learning style required of the students. He daydreamed in class and was often forgetful. At age 16, he flunked the entrance exam to the Zurich Polytechnic. Thankfully he didn’t let poor academic appraisals stop him from doing his work and impacting the philosophy of science in a profound way.

Stories like these remind me of Kintsugi - the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold. By highlighting fractures in a piece instead of covering them up, the pottery becomes even more valuable than its flawless original.

If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something. Not making mistakes is essentially confining yourself to a comfort zone, where growth does not happen.

We have two options in life. We can stay inside that comfort zone to ensure less errors, or we can pursue new adventures, realizing that we may mess up. The greater the challenges we take on, the greater the likelihood that we’ll fail somewhere along the way — but also the greater the likelihood that we’ll discover something new and get the deep satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.

Treasure your mistakes.

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