How Making Mistakes Can Help Us Learn and Grow

I can’t count the number of nights in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my husband and I spent watching one of his favorite shows on PBS called This Old House. A predecessor to the present-day home renovation programs, it offered viewers an inside look at projects with scrupulous attention to details. Bearded Bob Vila and Norm Abram were the host and co-host, builder and master carpenter for this show that exuded a folksy feel. One of the classic lines, courtesy of Norm, was “Measure twice, cut once,” which implied caution and care for outcome.

Sadly, at the time, it was not part of my code of ethics. Often, I rushed through my activities, in an attempt to meet deadlines, accomplish as much as possible in as short a period as possible. Then there was that chronic case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), which had me spinning my wheels without getting anywhere. I thought that if I slowed down, I wouldn’t keep up. As a result, much was left undone that my husband/business partner had to pick up. A lose-lose for both of us.

Mistakes were rampant — I was embarrassed to admit. The truth always came home to roost and I always swore to do better. I was doing a whole lot of cutting without measuring at all, assuming it would all fall into place and what I did would just have to suffice.

Fast forward, 28 years after his diagnosis of Hepatitis C and 21 years since his death, I now am ultra-attentive to details. I needed to be when he became ill and I had to manage his care: meds given at a certain time, doctors appointments to be scheduled, notes taken. No room for mistakes. All of this while juggling a full-time job and raising our son. What made a difference was realizing that I had the ability to be structured and organized — and that it took nothing away from my creativity.

My dear friend and mentor, Dr. Yvonne Kaye hammered into me 30 years ago the idea that discipline is freedom, at which I initially balked, since I erroneously believed it would limit me. Instead, it opened the door to even more creativity.

In my work as a therapist, I need to be methodical with note-taking, returning phone calls, and scheduling, in addition to the actual in office therapy. I have systems set up so that, while not perfect, I can manage it all without things slipping through the cracks. In my writing career, I know I have deadlines to meet with little wiggle room. I read and re-read, edit and polish, so that give each article my best.

In my personal life, I sometimes let responsibilities slide. One recent experience that almost cost me big time was that I let my car’s scheduled maintenance far exceed the date and the check engine light went on letting me know that I neglected its needs. I will take it in next week for this go-around pre-emptively. Lesson learned.

Science tells us that our brains are hardwired to learn from mistakes and even help us to prevent making them. Think of it as internal ‘oops’ that keep us from falling tumbling into errors.

Perhaps, like many people, when you were a child, you accidentally touched a hot stove or pot and burned your hand. The first time, it was a mistake. The second time, if there was one, it was a choice. Perhaps it was to test your experience, thinking, “Nah, it won’t happen again.” How many relationships in your life reflect that dynamic that had you feeling scorched emotionally?

I have come to think of them as mis-takes in need of do-overs. If you have ever been on a movie or television set, you know that sometimes it requires several “takes” to get the scene just right. While it may be frustrating to repeat lines multiple times, it makes for a more polished performance, although it is funny to watch out-takes and laugh along with them.

An analogy I have worked with for years is that of a radio dial and the frequency it emits. On one end of the dial is what I call WLUV and at the other WFER (love and fear) and I can choose at any moment, which polarity to inhabit. WLUV (love) plays songs and tells stories that are inspiring and nourishing and WFER (fear) broadcasts music and messages that are destructive, angry and harshly critical. Why would anyone consciously elect to tune into the latter station? Habit, unworthiness, self-sabotage, would be my answer. When we enhance the frequency and raise the vibration, the music is that much sweeter. Forgiveness is one of the keys to doing so. Forgiveness for being human even while taking responsibility for our mistakes.

How to prevent mistakes, accept them when they occur (after all, you are human) and recover from them:

  • Slow your pace
  • Create systems to maintain organization and structure
  • Check and double check your work
  • Take pride in what you do
  • Realize what is preventable and what is out of your control
  • Take your own inventory and ask if you gave it your best
  • Seek support from others to work through them and with whom you can check your work
  • Come clean when you do make mistakes
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Laugh at them when you can (Oops You Made a Mistake by Scott Kalechstein Grace)

“You want to know the difference between a master and a beginner? The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” ~ Unknown