Last month I clean forgot the birthday party of a good friend’s child. The party had been finished for a full hour before I saw a message from the Mom asking if we were OK because our absence had been noted. I wanted to crawl under a bush and stay there forever. I was mortified. I called to apologise, and the mom was her usual graceful, lovely self. I still felt horrendous and was sure that they were judging me for my thoughtlessness. Until the following week at my daughter’s birthday, when another Mom totally forgot OUR party. It was the most wonderfully unexpected gift for me. I could be graceful and lovely when she called to apologise, and suddenly I remembered that it wasn’t that big a deal, and that judging anyone for an error like that would be ridiculous.
Making a mistake is largely connected to the idea of failure. In our minds, the two are linked and when we make a mistake — we see it as a disaster. We often measure ourselves by standards that no person can achieve and then berate ourselves when we can’t reach those standards. Just as we wouldn’t laugh at a toddler taking its first steps and failing and falling, we should treat our own sometimes awkward attempts with the same level of kindness and patience. Because if we aren’t making mistakes and failing at something then what on earth are we doing all day?
When we make a big mistake it’s easy to feel like it’s the end of the world. We tend to see the world in terms of ourselves as the centre of everything, so we see our mistakes as hugely consequential life- shattering events rather than as others see them; which is as their own peripheral happenings.
Mistakes are a part of life — like death, taxes and looking for parking in Sea Point — it’s the way we handle a speedbump that shows who we are. Mistakes create opportunities for learning and I know I uncover the most about myself through my gut-wrenching errors rather than my successes. Mistakes are often not the most pleasant way to learn a lesson, but they can be very effective teachers. Our errors help us gain knowledge and hone our skills; and we can’t grow if we don’t have these opportunities to fall and get back up again.
In an article in the Huffington Post, motivational speaker Mike Robbins explains the best way to look at mistakes. “The vast majority of mistakes we make in life really aren’t all that big of a deal. The bigger issue when it comes to mistakes is either our fear of making them or our reaction to them once they have been made. As we lighten up and practice letting things go, we find that most things we stress or worry about are really small things.”
He goes on to say that “Most of the time there is no malicious intent by the person who made the mistake. Sadly, we tend to spend and waste a lot of time and energy either with blame or resentment, instead of focusing our attention in a more productive, positive, and healthy direction — forgiveness. It is often most difficult, but most important, for us to forgive ourselves when we make a mistake — we aren’t perfect, nor is anyone else.” Psychologist Mel Schwartz wrote in Psychology Today that “the anxiety about making mistakes is very much rooted in the old paradigm of being as opposed to becoming. This worldview has us see ourselves as fixed and static, not as flowing and changing”.
I am lucky that in my professional career I have leadership that recognises the value of errors. From one who dryly, pointed out that if people notice the error in my writing it means that at least they are reading my work — to another who, when a mistake of mine was pointed out, immediately found me an article titled In Praise of Mistakes by Robert Lynd and warmly encouraged me through my embarrassment.
So get out there and make mistakes. Be gracious when others make them and learn from the ones you yourself make. Go crazy and dance like no one is judging, because chances are, no one is. A world full of people making mistakes and forgiving each other for them is a world full of growth and possibility.