Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #8 — On Behalf of Mistakes: “You did what?”

#8 — On Behalf of Mistakes: “You did what?”

For generations writers have reflected on the nature of mistakes — how we make them, why we repeat them, and how we are affected by them.  Mistakes often make big news.  Politicians make “gaffes” during debates, popular singers forget the words to songs during performances, and ordinary people caught in awkward or embarrassing situations go “viral” in Internet videos.  Mistakes can also live through history, sometimes even more than successes.  Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.  The Beatles were turned down by Decca records.  Bill Cosby actively promoted New Coke.  And people in Boston still talk about Bill Buckner’s error in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series that resulted in the Mets winning when the Red Sox had been just one pitch away from clinching the series. 

Most of us work hard trying to avoid mistakes.  We read self-help books.  We prepare and follow check-lists.  We rehearse complicated procedures.  Some of us even try therapy.  Yet there is another way of considering mistakes and what they mean.  Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once remarked, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” while self-help author Peter McWilliams asked, “Without mistakes, how would we know what we had to work on?”  These and many similar observations suggest that mistakes can also represent opportunities.

I once had a colleague who declared that a mistake is “a lesson waiting to be learned.”  Evidence of this isn’t hard to find.  In baseball, for example, where errors are classified and carefully recorded, coaches distinguish between learning errors and performance errors.  Learning errors are followed by more instruction, performance errors by more practice.  In another example, Fred Brooks, director of the OS-360 project at IBM, which produced a major computer system for the 1960s and 1970s, spoke of mistakes in his book The Mythical Man-Month.  Commenting on his own experience, Brooks noted, “It is a humbling experience to make a multi-million dollar mistake.”  His project ended more than a year late and millions over budget.  In making his final report to his manager, Brooks reportedly confessed that he expected to be fired.  As the story goes, the manager replied, “Fire you?  Why would I do that?  I just spent 18 months and four million dollars training you!”

While mistakes can often be painful, most of us understand that human beings make mistakes because it is in our nature to do so.  If we can manage to see past our discomfort, we can often learn more from our experience than if we had not made the error in the first place.  A successful performance only reinforces what we already know how to do.  The lessons from a mistake can show us new ways of thinking and acting.  It is through the assimilation of these lessons that we are able to grow, and growth is an essential part of what life is.  After all, we consider a plant to be living because we see it grow.  In a very real sense, then, people who are not making mistakes may be existing, but they are not truly living.  As actress Sophia Loren once noted, “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.”

Most of us eventually learn to come to terms with our mistakes and obtain their benefits without having our egos too badly bruised.  For some of us, however, the challenge of a mistake is far more threatening.  Living in situations where mistakes are not tolerated and indeed sometimes treated as crimes teaches children (and the adults they become) to be risk averse.  I often see this, for example, in adult children of alcoholics.  Growing up in chaos, these children learn that to survive they must be either perfect or invisible.  If they are perfect and get attention, they won’t get hurt.  If they are invisible, they won’t get attention and they won’t get hurt.  While this may be a viable survival strategy for the children, the adults they become often have great difficulty adapting to a world where mistakes are a part of daily experience. 

The greater challenge for these and other people who have been taught that mistakes are “unacceptable,” is in learning to deal with two of life’s staples — ambiguity and uncertainty.  In the first case, the risk-averse person struggles with any situation that isn’t definitively one thing or another: yes or no, right or wrong, black or white.  Having lived in situations where the penalty for a mistake is impossibly severe, this person cannot tolerate anything that rests in the “gray area.”  The result is an all-or-nothing approach to life in which relationships, careers, and any other significant involvements must fit within a rigid value system or point of view.  The ability to seek compromise, so necessary for healthy relationships, has never been learned.  The human wreckage that often results is not hard to see — failed marriages, lost jobs, and people who find themselves isolated without quite understanding why.

If dealing with ambiguity is difficult, the risk-averse person finds dealing with uncertainty all but impossible.  The thought of making an error because of not knowing the possible outcome of a decision leads to a paralyzing fear of taking action.  Yet this very inaction results in an intolerable feeling of ambiguity, leaving the person in an inescapable conflict.  Most of us come to accept uncertainty as inevitable, and we expect to have to deal with unforeseen circumstances from time to time.  But for the risk-averse person confronted with such a situation, no “safe” decision is possible.  Since opting not to decide is itself a decision, there is no escape from the “what if” thoughts and the possibility of being responsible for a mistake.

This conflicted risk-averse person often comes to therapy seeking an outside authority, someone who can provide answers accompanied by proof that the recommended decision is “the right one.”  In short, the search is for a guarantee.  The obvious response, of course, is that not much is guaranteed in life short of leaving it.  Instead, I suggest seeking faith rather than guarantees — the faith that comes from acceptance of life as an ambiguous mixed bag, full of uncertainty, in which mistakes are a given.  If we can remember that the most important issues are the ones we must resolve within ourselves and that all important decisions must be made despite uncertainty, then we will no longer need guarantees.  Instead, we can put our faith in ourselves and simply make our best judgment in each circumstance, expecting to make mistakes and to deal with them forthrightly.  If we can free ourselves from the burden of always having to be right, then we can be open to the lessons our experience has to offer.  After all, we are not defined by our mistakes but by how we deal with them.

For myself, I remain grateful to my clients for being tolerant and for helping me understand my own mistakes as a therapist.  The things I have learned and the understandings I have gained in my profession come largely from their help.  Recently a client forwarded me a cartoon illustrating how everyone makes mistakes and has the occasional bad day.  In the picture, an Imperial Storm Trooper from the original Star Wars movie is sitting at a table with his head in his hands.  Having finally recognized his own mistake, he laments, “Those WERE the droids I was looking for!”

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  1. November 28, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    This is a really insightful, helpful view on the mistakes we/I make routinely in life. What a useful perspective…one that will help us “get back up on the pony” and keep on learning.

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