On Making Mistakes

My daughter, Hannah, is kind of an anxious kid. Not as anxious as I was at her age, but still fairly concerned with doing the right thing. On the one hand, I like that she’s driven to good behaviour, because that certainly beats the alternative. On the other hand, she’s not even eight years old yet. If there’s ever a time when imperfection is okay, it’s now. The stakes are still really low for her, and I see this as the best time for her to explore and experiment, without fear of the consequences.

To help allay Hannah’s fears, I point out that mistakes are how we learn. I tell her how, when she was learning to walk, she fell down a lot. Each time, she got back up. The more that she tried and the more that she fell, the better she got, until soon she was steady on her feet. Babies, in my experience, are masters at learning through experimenting and falling down. They don’t become dejected by the process, they just keep at it.

At some point, however, we start to think that we shouldn’t make mistakes. We think that we should always know just what to do, and that we should never change our minds. Closing a business, quitting a volunteer gig, giving up knitting in disgust – all of these things seem, to our adult minds, to be a sign of weakness. A sign that we’ve made a mistake. And now, even my bright and beautiful daughter is starting to think that way. A mistake is a failure, a shortcoming, a source of shame.

make mistakes learn from themWhen I embarked on my own personal Crafting my Life journey, I quickly realized that mistakes were inevitable. I was going from being an engineer to being a writer. While many people had nice things to say about my way with words, the truth was that I knew little to nothing about how to write. As a life-long perfectionist and Type A personality, this didn’t feel comfortable to me. I didn’t want to make mistakes. I didn’t want to appear weak. I wanted to know it all, before I even started. Even as I knew this was impossible, I viewed the mistakes with trepidation.

I’ve learned a thing or two about mistakes along the way, though. The first thing I learned is that the less you fight the mistakes, the easier they are. When you’re facing internal resistance, and every cell in your body is tensed in fear of doing the wrong thing, the worse it’s going to feel when the inevitable happens. On the other hand, the more that you can accept that it’s okay to be human, the less you’ll get caught up in a cycle of shame when things don’t go your way. It may not feel good, exactly, but it won’t feel terrible.

Something else I’ve learned about mistakes is that, in retrospect, they’re often the best thing that ever happened. I am a huge fan of The Princess Bride. Here’s a quote from that movie that always makes me laugh:

Buttercup – We’ll never succeed. We may as well die here.
Westley – No, no. We have already succeeded. I mean, what are the three terrors of the Fire Swamp? One, the flame spurt – no problem. There’s a popping sound preceding each; we can avoid that. Two, the lightning sand, which you were clever enough to discover what that looks like, so in the future we can avoid that too.

Westley suggests that Buttercup did them both a favour by falling into the lightning sand and almost dying, thereby forcing him to rescue her. She wasn’t making a mistake, she was making a discovery. Was it fun at the time? No. But by making it, she saved time and allowed them to avoid future danger, far more effectively than she could by almost any other means.

These days, when I absolve Hannah of her mistakes, I’m really absolving myself, too. I’m reminding us both that sometimes we’ll fall down, and that’s okay. In the end, those slip-ups are what make us who we are, and help us to avoid making the same mistake the next time around. They might not be fun, but the more we embrace them for what they are, the less terrible they’ll be.

Are you good at embracing your mistakes? Or are you a perfectionist, like me? Tell me all about it!

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  1. I am kind of a perfectionist and pretty hard on myself. But when it comes to others (of course!) I think that mistakes are absolutely essential. I always think of Ms. Frizzle (from the Magic School Bus) who always says, in that really annoying voice: “Take chances! Make mistakes!”

    Going easier on myself is something I’m working on.

    FamilyNature’s last post … ProgressMy Profile

  2. Why couldn’t you have been my mother? Such wisdom. Alas, I was too reserved, anxious, embarrassed to really put myself out there. Still am actually, unless there is no fear of witnesses to my mistakes (i.e.: in the comfort of my own home).

    And now my eight year old daughter is just like me. Eeks. The only way I know to help her is to embark on something risky for myself and have my kids witness my mistakes then see me pull myself up and try again.

    I’m working on it.
    Christy’s last post … One Little WordMy Profile

    • It really stinks, doesn’t it, having to set a good example? Although it is a good incentive towards self-improvement, sometimes I’d rather just wallow in my perfectionism. 😉

  3. I’m pretty good with mistakes and admitting when I’m wrong, although I must admit this came later in my adult life and not throughout adolescence or early adult life. Now though, I value mistakes so much for what they can offer, which is basically a chance to learn. That’s what I try to show my three year old; that mistakes are great and that deliberate practice makes you better at what you do, that hardly anyone is born with perfect skills and instead got there through many mistakes.

    This is also why I love emphasizing and praising effort over seemingly innate traits, e.g. saying “You really worked hard at that assignment!” vs. “You’re so smart!” Focusing on effort gives us so much more control over what we do that believing that we’re either smart or not.
    Nina’s last post … Mommy track: On women, careers and “giving it up” for motherhoodMy Profile

  4. 8 seems indeed too young to be so critical and hard with oneself! my 6 year old for now laughs when she realizes she’s made a “mistake”, and I like her solar attitude – here’s to hoping it will last!
    Francesca’s last post … eleven years laterMy Profile

  5. It depends on the mistake–and whether I can fix it before anyone notices.:) Little mistakes, like a typo in my blog, I’m not happy about, but I’ll fix it and forget about it. Bigger mistakes definitely bother me, especially if the mistake is the result of a life lesson that I’ve already learned but find myself having to relearn. For example, if I know a certain shopkeeper is a crab, but I go into the store anyway and he’s rude to me, that’s going to bother me for a few hours, because I should have known better.

    You know, I’m torn about this, because huge mistakes have huge consequences and should give us pause. However, once you’ve paused and processed (and perhaps apologized), the only healthy response is to move on. So in that sense, I guess I do “embrace” my mistakes, but yikes, it feels horrible either way.

    • Yeah, I move on from the blog typos, too. I can only imagine how much anguish I’d be in if I didn’t!

      I’m not saying that mistakes feel good, or that we should set out to make them. Rather that they’re inevitable, and so instead of beating ourselves up we should take what lessons we can from the experience. And, yes, make amends as appropriate. I think that’s what you’re saying, too.

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