How to deal with mistakes

mistakesMistakes are unintentional, but can lead to serious consequences. Mistakes can keep us from achieving desired outcomes, small wins and big goals. Mistakes suck. They sometimes feel like colossal failures.

Mistakes will occur over and over again because they are a core part of the human experience. Because you can’t completely avoid making mistakes, you need to know how to deal with them when they do arise.

1. Know the difference between a mistake and a bad choice

Mistakes are not done on purpose. They are fueled by cognitive biases in our thought process. They usually result from things beyond your control, such as inexperience, lack of knowledge, external pressures, complex problems, and unstable conditions. A bad decision, on the other hand, is made deliberately, often with knowledge of the risks and consequences involved.

Running a stop sign when you didn’t see it, because you were zoning out, is a mistake. Running a stop sign even after you saw it, because you were in a rush, is a bad choice.

Disclosing information you didn’t realize was confidential is a mistake. Giving away private information, when you were told to keep it a secret, is a bad choice.

Incorrectly applying a client payment to the wrong client is a mistake. Embezzling money from your client is a bad choice.

When you refer to your action as a mistake, make sure you’re not just failing to take responsibility for a bad choice.

2. Own up to your mistake 

Compared to bad decisions, mistakes are easier to accept. But admitting to them still requires self-knowledge, courage, and a willingness to manage or conquer blind spots.

Through deliberate reflection, you become more aware of the tendencies, motives, biases, personal circumstances, and external factors underlying your mistakes. Are you driven by immediate rewards, instead of long-term payoffs? Do you dismiss red flags when starting a relationship? Are you a procrastinator who doesn’t thrive well under pressure? Do you need to get new prescription eyeglasses?

It’s natural to feel bummed out about a mistake. But dwelling on it doesn’t do you much good. Owning up to your mistakes means recognizing your flaws and fallibility, and stopping short of beating yourself up over them.

This skill allows you to save time and energy you would otherwise spend covering up or ignoring mistakes. When you drop the ball on a project, you need to communicate with your client, offer a sincere apology, and discuss an actionable solution to make up for the mistake.

The purpose of owning up to your mistake is not to get the people affected off your back or to reduce your sense of guilt. Rather, to really work, it needs to come from a place of sincere regret and a true desire to make progress (even it this includes making more inevitable mistakes).

3. Reframe the mistake as a learning opportunity

Mistakes give you practical experience to grow, hone a sharper and deeper perspective, and gain wisdom. Trial and error has led to human innovations and inventions such as penicillin, silly putty, chocolate-chip cookies, x-ray images, and the microwave oven.

Just like a toddler learns to walk by falling and standing again, you also have to get back up again when you take a tumble. Staying stuck when there’s a way out is not an ideal way to live.

You will not get things right every single time you take action, venture into new territory, tackle a problem, provide a service or make a product. Use the mistake to help you discover unhealthy patterns and habits and to decide what you will do differently next time. Capitalize on your mistakes to build your expertise and refine your ability to recover from setbacks.

Mistakes are a pathway to creating an enriched and meaningful life with fewer regrets. When you’re not making mistakes, you’re not growing, pushing your limits, and moving out of your comfort zone. In turn, life gets stagnant and monotonous and you feel stuck and uninspired.

Cherishing your mistakes empowers you to take worthwhile risks, develop your strengths and capabilities, move through fear, and contribute to a healthier community.

4. Share your mistakes with others

Discuss the mistakes you’ve made and the lessons you learned with your peers and colleagues, your organization, and your community at large. If this is too daunting for you, choose a best buddy, a thoughtful mentor or a trusted confidante to talk about your mistakes.

Sharing your mistakes encourages others to talk about theirs as well. It enables you to see you are not alone. We all make mistakes.

Sharing your mistakes creates a culture of learning and helps others avoid the same mistakes. Leaders who admit they make mistakes are more likely to earn respect, encourage trust, and build a stronger team, which contribute to better results.

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Embracing mistakes is not about taking on a cavalier attitude toward important matters, acting irresponsibly, and engaging in trial and error when there’s a more systematic method to create solutions. But some mistakes are inevitable — no matter how much proofreading, planning and preparing you do. The most you can do is deal with them so they contribute to your progress and success instead of keep you down and defeated.


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Photo by: Kristy Johnson