When You Make a Mistake
by Rick Brenner
We've all made mistakes, and we'll continue to do so for as long as we live. Making mistakes is part of being human. Still, we're often troubled by our mistakes, even when we remember that many mistakes turn out to be great gifts. Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging mistakes?
If you ever start feeling superhuman, wait a day or two — you're sure to make a mistake, and you'll probably feel bad about it. Making mistakes is nothing to worry about — it's proof of your humanity. The time to worry is when you don't think you're making mistakes, because you probably are — you just don't know it yet.
Finding out that we've made a mistake can be a really good thing. In October, 2001, when I edited the configuration file for my newsletter, I unwittingly turned on an option that enables everyone to send anything at all to the list. Nothing much happened until February, when a subscriber replied to an issue, another complained that that message was spam, someone else advised people not to reply to the list, and so on, until the world exploded. If I had found out about my mistake earlier, in some other way, only I would have known.
If recognizing a mistake can actually be a good thing, why do we have such a hard time acknowledging mistakes? For many of us, the difficulty traces to what Virginia Satir called a survival rule. Survival rules are over-generalized imperatives that we usually learn when very young, like "I must eat everything on my plate." Of course, there are no exemptions for survival rules, even for reasonable circumstances, and that's where the trouble begins.
Finding out that
we've made a mistake
can be a really good thingSince it's our nature to make mistakes, a rule forbidding them — "I must never make a mistake" — provides an unending supply of trouble. When we do make a mistake, we feel bad about the consequences, but we also feel bad about the mistake itself. We can feel so bad that we deny it, or lie, or commit crimes, or even write long emails.
Converting rules to more forgiving guidelines is very helpful. A more reasonable guideline might be something like "I do my best not to make mistakes, and I'm human."
And it helps to reframe mistakes. In many ways, mistakes can actually be gifts in disguise. Here are a few gifts that sometimes come along with mistakes:
- If you realize that you've made a mistake, it wasn't fatal.
- Every mistake is an opportunity to practice owning up to mistakes.
- The earlier you find out about a mistake, the more time you have to do something about it.
- Your mistakes are a service to your community — everyone around you feels better about their own fallibility.
- What you were actually trying to do might have been even worse than the mistake you made.
Sometimes the shortest path to new insight is through a mistake. Top Next Issue
For more on survival rules, see "Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never," Point Lookout for February 27, 2002.
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as or as . You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
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- When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.
- Hurtful Clichés: Part II
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
- Handling Heat: Part II
- Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias
- As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 4: Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
- And on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
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