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.
Pencils come with erasers for a reason. Image (cc) Alex Morfin.
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 an individual or as an organization. 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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- Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?
- Responding to Threats: Part I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
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- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Peers I
- Our exploration of approaches for dealing with compulsive talkers now continues, with Part I of a set of suggestions for what to do when a peer interferes with your work by talking compulsively.
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 2: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
- And on September 9: Holding Back: Part I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.
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