A few weeks ago, I made a mistake. Yes, it’s true, and here I am admitting it. Very uncomfortably. Why is “mistake” such a dirty word for so many of us? I took a look at my own reaction and came up with three ways I could start to embrace my mistakes, and see them as opportunities rather than weaknesses.
So, the mistake. I committed the ultimate cardinal sin: I let my yoga class over-run. And, it was a late class, so finishing on time was even more important.
After class I could see that the studio team were annoyed and I went deep into my “story” (the lie that you tell yourself when you’re in reaction mode) – that I need to impress people and I am not good enough. I’m not good enough to be a yoga teacher, I don’t belong here, I’m a horrible person for keeping people late, I’m so stupid for not keeping track of the time.
As you can tell, mistakes are a huge trigger for me, especially when I feel I’m letting someone down (read: not impressing them). When I realise I’ve done something wrong, my heart sinks, I feel ashamed, embarrassed, not good enough. I’ll either dig a hole trying to justify it, or pretend it never happened and cover it up.
For this particular mistake, it took a while to get out of story mode, but I did so, eventually, by getting some support from my yoga teacher tribe (shout out #TNT), and focusing on what I gained from the experience. As a result of this particular mistake, I learned:
- How important it is to scope out the room early
- That I still have work on cadence in my classes – and the poses that I pause just a little too long on.
- The cumulative impact of non-essential language in my classes.
Even though it made me feel terrible, it was a huge learning experience for me, and ultimately made me a better yoga teacher… = good, right? It got me thinking: what if, next time, I could have the learning without the bad feeling? I looked back at my experience, and other times I’ve made mistakes, and thought about how I eventually got over them, or sometimes not. I decided that there were three steps to start shifting from the loss perspective to the gain.
Know your story
The big deal with mistakes is rooted in our story that they shouldn’t happen. Which we all know is total, for lack of a better word, bullshit. Ask some of the world’s greatest minds:
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein; “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ― Thomas A. Edison
“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
And perhaps most famously,
“To err is human, to forgive, divine.” ― Alexander Pope
It’s very very difficult to let go of the idea of perfection, and particularly the idea that you have to appear perfect to others. One thing we can all do is know our story and our triggers. If your story, like mine, is that you need to be perfect, be in control, prove yourself, or impress people, acknowledge it! And know that mistakes are going to hit you particularly hard. When you make a mistake, get accustomed to the deep, hollow, sinking feeling in your chest, and remember that it is based on a lie. When it comes back, recognise it, repeat to yourself why you’re feeling this way, and then let it go.
One of the best pieces of advice about dealing with mistakes was a video shared by a friend by the SPANX CEO Sara Blakely. In her family, they celebrated their mistakes every night, recounting the failures they’d made that day at the dinner table. If they couldn’t think of a failure it was more of a disappointment than if they could think of several. Owning our mistakes, admitting them, recounting them, will eventually desensitize us to the negative connotations and help us move towards from the positive.
Focusing on the positive is such a simple idea, and it’s so, so effective. It’s an ideology taught across fields from leadership to mental health: looking on the bright side, focusing on what you can learn and can do, it’s empowering. It’s also not as easy as it sounds. Thinking positively, focusing on the gains, forcing yourself out of the habitual wallowing, it takes work …and it is possible. What I decided is that I needed an accountability partner, someone I trust who can ask me, what did you fail at today, what did you learn from it, and also someone who can call bullshit (lovingly) when I’m immersed in the negativity of mistakes, and instead help me celebrate them.
Put mistakes into perspective
As an engineer I work in an industry where “mistakes” can have very serious consequences; expensive equipment damage, serious environmental impact, even loss of life. As a result it’s very easy to feel the pressure of being perfect. But perfection, as we’ve seen already, is a lie, human error happens, and the industry knows that. We have a system of codes, procedures, checkers, approvers and revisions to make sure that little mistakes are just that, little. The next time you make a mistake, but into perspective the real implications of it. In my case, I may have disappointed or annoyed a few people by running late. They may have felt like that for about an hour, got home, gone to bed, and forgot about it. Meanwhile, I am turning it over and over in my head, picturing their faces, worried what they think of me. I have a feeling that in most cases, thinking of the real consequences of a mistake will show us just how insignificant they are, and where they’re not, help us nail down how we need to act to make it right.
Do mistakes strike a chord with you or can you let them wash over you? How do you deal with the effect they can have? Let me know in the comments.
Here’s to living and learning.