“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
― George Bernard Shaw
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
― Albert Einstein
“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
We’ve all heard variations on the above quotes about mistakes, about how inevitable and even important they are. They mean that we’re growing and moving forward. But as I was looking for inspiration to write this post, I found that these quotes were the opposite of helpful. I can know intellectually that making mistakes is all part of the process and that it doesn’t reflect on who I am, but in the moment it sure feels like it does. All the glib quotes in the world won’t make rear-ending someone or hurting a friend feel okay.
When I realize I’ve made a mistake I can feel my stomach drop, like the floor just fell out from under me. Depending on the severity, a slow burning panic might start to spread across my body and I feel like I’m flailing – attempting to grab at the edges of reality like it’s a page I can turn back to when I was doing things right, or a sheet I can pull over my head. And then the stories start spinning, telling me that I’m stupid or selfish or a terrible driver who doesn’t deserve to be on the road.
When it comes to mistakes, I’m interested in figuring out two things:
1. What do we do with the pain it causes?
2. How can we avoid letting the negative stories take control and shape our vision of who we are?
There are many reasons we make mistakes: we’re not paying attention, we’re tired or overwhelmed, we’re overconfident, we’re pushing our limits, we’re trying something new and don’t know enough yet, or we’re suffering from straight up bad luck. Each of these has something different to teach us, as long as we don’t let the pain carry us away.
Here are some ways that I’m learning to be mindful about my mistakes:
Feel the feels
“When you find your path, you must not be afraid. You need to have sufficient courage to make mistakes. Disappointment, defeat, and despair are the tools God uses to show us the way.”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida
I’ve noticed that when I do something that doesn’t align with my values I tend to feel really bad. If I forget plans with a friend, or am not there for someone when they need me, I feel a lot of guilt and shame. For a long time I thought that this was a bad thing. I thought I was broken because I get so torn up about how I treat other people. But just a couple of days ago (when I forgot to respond to a text and missed out on seeing a friend) I realized that it’s not a bad thing at all. Those painful feelings are my compass. They’re pointing me towards the person that I want to be. If I start telling a story about what a bad friend I am and how I can’t do anything right, that’s a bad thing. But the pain of guilt is an important one, and something that I’m not going to try to get rid of.
The only way out of the pain of mistakes is through. Feel the shame, guilt, hurt, or frustration and let that emotion guide you to making changes.
“We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”
― Bob Ross
Instead of coming up with all sorts of dire conclusions about what my mistakes mean about me, I’m working on approaching them with curiosity instead. Why did I do what I did, instead of something else? What would a better outcome have been? How can I get to that outcome next time? Our lives are complex and overwhelming and it’s crazy to think that we’ll have a handle on things at all times. Curiosity is a much lighter emotion than shame or despair and it leads to more solutions.
You might also ask yourself, what good could come of this mistake? Can I turn it around into something useful?
Check in with how I’m doing
“What I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all.”
― Maya Angelou
I can tell that something is amiss in my life when I start breaking things. The clumsier I am, the more I know I need to step back and take a look at what’s going on. Sometimes it means that I’m too tired and need rest (like when I drop a bottle of olive oil on the ground, it shatters and I fall to the floor in despair). Sometimes it means that I’m pushing my boundaries and coming up against negative beliefs.
When I announced that I wanted to go full time with my art, I noticed a surge of mistakes: I spilled water on my laptop, lost my phone, left my flat iron on all day, forgot how the soda stream worked and sprayed water all over the kitchen, and yelled at my partner. It felt like my subconscious mind was trying to tear down the world around me so that I wouldn’t have to face my fears and do the scary work ahead of me. Times like these remind me that I need to slow down, pay attention to how I’m feeling and be compassionate with myself.
If it seems like your mistakes are compounding, it’s time to be quiet and see where the real problem is.
Write it down
“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
After finishing my last big installation project I wrote up a complete project debrief with all my costs, the hours put into it, what worked and what didn’t. There are so many things that I wish I had done differently and that caused me grief in the moment. But when I wrote them all done in my project report, they felt more like a road map pointing me in the right direction. Next time (hopefully!) I won’t make those same mistakes. I’ll make different ones for sure but I’ll keep growing.
Even the smallest part of a “failed” project can be inspiration or instruction for the next one.
Laugh about it
“Have your adventures, make your mistakes, and choose your friends poorly — all these make for great stories.”
― Chuck Palahniuk
Mistakes keep us guessing, keep us on our toes. They keep us learning and trying. Just when we think we’ve got this life thing figured out, we drop our cell phone in the toilet and we are humbled. Sometimes the only thing we can do is laugh. I am always working on taking myself less seriously and finding more lightness. Keep an open mind and you might find that the mistakes that are weighing you down aren’t such a big deal after all.