Mistakes



I published my first book when I was 50 years old. I had numerous professional publications by then, and an expansive track record of crafting written academic policies. I wrote in fluent “academese”, an obscure language practiced by scholars. My first draft of my book used that language. I was blessed by a review that noted the potential uselessness of opting for this language. I discarded the entire first draft and rewrote the book in my own “voice”. At the time, reflecting on this “voice” decision terrified me, and I realized I was fretting about making a mistake. This unleashed a whole bevy of insights about my mistakes.


I loved the first insight. I realized that through my 50 years, I had made numerous mistakes; the list was actually fairly long! Reflecting on this, I noticed that those I knew who had made far fewer mistakes had also done a good deal less. I suddenly realized that the only safe way to avoid making mistakes was to do nothing (which of course is itself the most awesome mistake of all!). I also realized that any time you do anything “new” you are risking mistakes, and so my persistent willingness to try new things doomed me to making mistakes at least part of the time. I began to respect my mistakes as an indicator of willingness to try new things. I also began to see persons who did not mistakes in a new light. For me, the successful avoidance of mistakes is not a desirable character trait.


My second realization was that the mistake is not the issue; what you do about it is the challenge. There is a huge web of implications in this insight, tributary insights. Naming a few may be useful.


Owning my mistakes is very uncomfortable and embarrassing. I noticed that making that tough decision changed how I managed the consequences of my mistake. I also was struck by the number of people who simply could not admit that they had made a mistake. It is very difficult to address the consequences of a mistake if you are unable to admit you made one. Once you lay claim to your mistake, you can access a wide range of things you might opt to do to “fix” any problematic consequences.


The actual decision to own my mistakes opened up surprising options. I never imagined the options before I owned my mistake, so I was often startled by the emerging opportunities. Mistakes, I discovered, are often the gateway to whole new visions and vistas. To my amazement, you can only access these opportunities through making mistakes and owning them. Who knew!?!


My personal mistakes affect me, but they also affect others. Monitoring the impact of my mistakes requires that I also consider harms to others. This too is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Yet the failure to take this inventory and act on it can not only compound the impact of a mistake but also plant the seeds of long-term harms to others. Looking back, I do not think I always managed this part of my mistakes well. Aging, however, has highlighted for me how important dealing with this part of my mistakes can be. I am better at it than I used to be however it is a complex challenge for me, and I suspect for others.


Mistakes are relative phenomena. They require reflection and evaluation. Again, looking back, many things I once called mistakes during my life journey now appear to be fortuitous events that opened new doors, windows, escape hatches and energy floodgates. I do not regret these or apologize for them. I also know that I may be the only person who no longer calls them mistakes.


Germane to this insight, I have discovered how often others insist on telling me when, where, and how I have made a mistake. This once upset me; now it simply amuses me. When others take it upon themselves to tell me about my mistakes, I now ask a simple question: “Why are they telling me this?”


The impulse to tell others about their mistakes, especially when done with a somewhat strident tone of voice, says more about the person acting on that impulse than it says about the person being critiqued. Judging other’s mistakes is dangerous territory, especially when done with intensity, conviction, and insistence. For me it is a red flag: I no longer focus on the mistake or the person apparently making the mistake: my curiosity shifts to the person with the need to judge.


This brief summary does not exhaust all the insights mistake making has given me through my life journey. After all, if you make numerous mistakes your options for insights exponentially expand. This is, however, an initial chronicling. I may revisit this topic in the future. One final thought though must be included here. Returning yet again to my conviction that “you laugh at what you no longer fear”, a review of a personal mistake often finds its optimal place in my memory bank when it makes me laugh. Lots of my mistakes, looking back through the rear-view mirror, are remarkably funny.


“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”


- Albert Einstein -