The Power in the Mistake

Mindy Kaling is the best.
No one likes making mistakes, right? It’s painful-you feel embarrassed, like a failure, and worst of all…you may have let someone down. Ugh. I spent a lot of time in my younger years terrified to make mistakes but luckily I have learned (through some pretty painful lessons) that mistakes are human and so very often, force us to grow.  
I am not a perfectionist. I live a very Wabi-sabi approach to most of my life nowadays. When I create things (art, crafts, blogs even!) I strive for good work-but-I try not to beat myself up if there’s a minor mistake here and there (take my last blog-I learned that there were some formatting errors that weren’t visible to me so I apologize for that! I think it’s fixed now. Adding photos makes it all weird.) This is funny though because my professional career is very much about accuracy-if I make a big enough mistake it can lead to money lost or that big scary thing I said above-letting someone down. There’s a balance in my life then: Monday through Friday, from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm I use my brain muscles to really be accurate and limit mistakes. But. Ugh. I make them. Recently I continued to not change the address on some pretty important documents even after it had caused an issue that I already had to fix! Holy guacamole it was one number and I really did forget to change it 3 times! I was so embarrassed and truly felt like I was letting down everyone I work with (and work for).
I didn’t allow that to turn into a pity party. What I have striven to do over the last several years is own my mistakes for what they are, and then, and this is key, let it go. That. Is. Hard. When I had messed up the address for the third time I just had to laugh at myself and apologize and guess what? It was a simple fix! And truly, I feel better knowing that I am building a reputation of being honest. It is so easy to either brush a mistake unto someone else or get huffy about being corrected but if you are able to work on telling yourself, “This is just a blip. I made a mistake, I’m not a failure.” You can truly start to shift your mindset.
Last night I came home from work and realized I had made, in my mind, a fatal error. I don’t often use our garage (I drive a bigger SUV, our garage is not connected to our house and is about 100 yards from our condo, etc.) but with the Polar Vortex that just shot through the Midwest I decided that I should probably take advantage of our garage since my husband’s car was at the airport. Well, when I left for work yesterday morning I must have not of hit the button, or hit it too many times?
Something. I don’t know. All I know is that when I came home from work yesterday our garage door was standing wide open. My heart sank thinking that something would be missing or God only knows what could be going on in there!! But as I drove by and held my breath…I noticed nothing was missing (or taking shelter.) Whew. But you see, if my husband had done that I would have probably been annoyed! All of our Christmas decorations are in there! Our awesome grill! I made a mistake but no one knew about it!! So I had an option-I could close the garage door and just say ‘no harm, no foul’ or, I could be honest and tell Derek that hey, I made a mistake-it didn’t end poorly, but I did it.
Well. I told him. He didn’t care (which I knew he wouldn’t) and basically said that he’s probably done it too in the many years he’s lived here and to not worry about it. Easy peasy. But I felt better knowing I had told him (even though I was embarrassed by my mistake).
We are all more than our single worst days. We are all most than our rotten moments. And we certainly are more than our mistakes. Like most things in life it is how we respond in those moments that defines our characters. Even how we can’t respond sometimes can help us to pinpoint crucial things that perhaps we need to take stock in and evaluate about ourselves.
One of the reasons I used to struggle so much with the fear of mistakes was really, my self-esteem. If I made a mistake then someone may not like me, I may lose my job, I may be categorized as incompetent….and so goes the snow ball down the hill until it’s an avalanche and I’m stuck in the middle of it because I CAN’T MAKE A MISTAKE. Sometimes this came out as know-it-all-isms. If I appear to know it all, then no one would see my faults and then label me as unworthy or unintelligent! If I blamed others for my mistakes then of course I’d be off the hook!
Do I really need to say that none of that worked well? It actually was a self-fulfilling prophecy-the more I worried about making a mistake or looking ‘dumb’…the more people labeled me some unflattering things.  I am still grateful for one of my internship supervisors for pulling me aside and actually calling this out (in a kind but very serious way). She did a world of good at planting the seed there and then through therapy, the rest of it worked itself out. Now, I take comfort in knowing that I don’t know it all-and that’s okay. That I may make some epic mistakes-but it gives me a chance to learn. Is it sunshine and rainbows to have to go back in fix mistakes? Hell no. But it does give me the chance to critically think (and that seems to build some pretty strong neural pathways….)
To now this topic has really related more to concrete mistakes-things at work, forgetting to shut the garage, etc. You know, very human woopsie moments. These happen all the time right? But what about when emotions get in the way? Yes, making mistakes at work can bring about feelings (as I just mentioned. No one likes feeling embarrassed.) While I’ve found that flipping my script on how I think about mistakes tends to lessen the severity of the emotions I feel (so I’m embarrassed for 10 seconds rather than all day? Maybe I don’t feel my boss thinks I’m a failure at everything she charges me with?) I still have to keep them in check.
And sometimes, we make mistakes where we hurt other people. Ouch. These mistakes aren’t always as easy to fix as a transposed number or a lost report. These types of mistakes are powerful in other ways-they can cause rifts in relationships. They cause us to view people completely differently. Sometimes they break apart relationships. Mistakes left unchecked can spread like wildfire in your heart. What do we do then?
Well. We do the same thing that we have to do with those more concrete mistakes-we have to ask ourselves why we may not feel so inclined to immediately apologize and make things right. Is it ego? Embarrassment? Misunderstanding? Sometimes being held accountable for our unintentional (or, sometimes intentional) actions can wrap us up in so many feelings that it seems impossible to own up to them. Maybe it’s easier to blame the other person, or just let it hang in the air like a lead balloon, or sometimes…just let that relationship come to a close.
Look, I’ve made some heavy mistakes toward those I love the most. And it S-U-C-K-S on so many levels. I don’t like to think of it as ‘eating crow’ or ‘swallowing pride’ when we have to apologize though. I think it changes the context and puts so much more pressure on pride when we think of it that way. Humility goes a long way but it doesn’t mean it’s humiliating. There is a huge difference there and perhaps if we stop and think about practicing more humility (freedom from pride or arrogance the quality or state of being humble) rather than humiliation ( to reduce (someone) to a lower position in one’s own eyes or others’ eyes to make (someone) ashamed or embarrassed ) our relationships will grow. Maybe they’ll become stronger. There is power in the mistake if we treat it like opportunity rather than a total misfortune.  It’s hard, yes, but the more practice we have-the stronger we become.
Whether the mistake is concrete or relational, remember this: the way you respond defines you, not the mistake itself. Do you learn and grow? Or do you stay stuck and repeat (and ultimately burn)? Do you own up with humility? Or do you let humiliation take over? Sometimes mistakes are costly and I won’t deny that, but more often than not, our mistakes can be opportunity if we’re willing.