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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See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
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