6 Tactics to Handle Mistakes With Grace and Courage
November 28th, 2012 by Katie Morton
(Photo: Fountain Head / Creative Commons.)
Mistakes: everybody makes them, no one seems to love them. But love them we should. Mistakes are a beneficial part of life, especially when we’re taught how to cope well with them.
Teach yourself not to fear mistakes, but to embrace them with these 6 tactics for handling mistakes with grace and courage.
1. True mistakes violate your ethics.
Photo: Martin Fisch / Creative Commons
Before we can handle mistakes, we need to define for ourselves what actually constitutes a mistake. One way to get started is to clearly define the points on your moral compass and try to act in line with expectations you set for yourself. When we violate our own expectations and perform at a lower quality of behavior than we believe we are capable of, then we know we’ve made a mistake.
Identify your values and create goals that dovetail with those values. That way, true mistakes will be much easier to identify because they will either violate your principles or they will be counteractive to your goals.
2. Pleasing others does not make you mistake-proof.
Photo: Zach Klein / Creative Commons
Sometimes we make a choice or do something that seems to go over like a lead balloon amongst other people. We may suffer scorn or criticism, or we hear nothing but crickets when we expected praise. Was it really a mistake, or did you simply fail to please others? Perhaps we made a mistake, but the truth is that sometimes we confuse mistakes with our inability to make everyone happy.
You will never get 100% of the votes. Could you imagine if the president-elect considered his campaign a failure because every single person in the country didn’t vote for him? That would be nuts. So is expecting that everyone will like you or that everyone will always be on board with your ideas and goals.
It’s only natural to want to please our friends and loved ones. However, being a conformist who tries to make everyone happy may not leave you happy with yourself. When we try to please others at the expense of our own goals and values, it’s often a mistake. You can’t please everyone, nor should you want to.
3. Mistakes serve the valiant purpose of improving our character and abilities.
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There are two ways we can learn: from other people’s experiences or from our own. Of course it’s wise to learn from those who have gone before us. But if we only learn from others and we’re avoiding learning from our own mistakes, then we’re not doing much living. If we play it safe our whole lives, then we never really live.
The word “mistake” often conjures up bad and scary feelings of shame or embarrassment. Sometimes a fear of these feelings can paralyze us and make us afraid to leave our comfort zone. There’s beauty in feeling the fear and acting anyway. The worst case scenario is really the best case: we learn something and improve ourselves as a result. Mistakes must be made in order for us to reach our full potential.
4. Some mistakes aren’t worth fixing.
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It’s not always about trying to fix things or to return things back to their former state. Sometimes, as weird as this sounds, our mistakes were leading us in the right direction all along.
When I was first laid off from my job as an executive, I wondered what I could have done differently to save my job, or what I could do in the future in order to prevent another job loss. It took me a while to figure this out, but my “mistake” – which could be defined as not caring enough about my job to hang onto it – served as new information for me that helped me to redefine my moral compass, my values, and therefore my goals. As it turns out, my job loss wasn’t a mistake, but rather a new beginning.
Sometimes when we make mistakes, it might mean that we were moving in the wrong direction to begin with. In these cases, it’s not worth going back to fix something that technically wasn’t right for us in the first place. Use this new information as a fresh roadmap to guide you in the future.
5. Some mistakes can’t be fixed.
Photo: Ed Yourdon / Creative Commons
Of course the wisest thing to do, as soon as we realize we’ve made a mistake – especially one that has hurt someone else – is to make amends and to work hard to right our wrongs. As Martha Beck has written, “The perfect moment to apologize is the moment you realize you’ve done something wrong.”
Sometimes our mistakes will haunt us when someone we love won’t forgive us or when we hurt our reputations. Sometimes the best course of action is to express our regrets and then let it go. In these irreparable cases, we need to dust ourselves off, start over, and work to create something better. There are times when we need to relinquish control of an old situation and persist in forging a better future that contains stronger relationships with people other than those who have lost their confidence in us.
6. Mistakes offer the opportunity to learn responsibility.
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When I was working at my first “real” job at CNBC, I learned a hard lesson about responsibility. I made a technical mistake. When my mistake was discovered, my impulse was to deflect blame because I felt the mistake was not entirely my fault. Aside from that, I was cowering inside because I was afraid of the punishment I would suffer. I didn’t know that to take full responsibility, offer to clean up my mistake, to own it was far more attractive than pointing out the reasons why I shouldn’t be held accountable.
One great indicator for how happy we are is how in control we feel over our lives, our actions and our time. Unfortunately, traditional parenting methods that dole out punishment (rather than teaching moments) strip us of feelings of responsibility. Many of us learn at a young age that the best course of action to avoid consequences is not to keep our actions above reproach – because it’s impossible to do 100% of the time – but that it’s safer to concentrate on avoiding getting caught, because that’s where we have the most salient sense of control.
These unhelpful teachings can last well into adulthood: think of all those philandering politicians who only own up to their mistakes once they get caught up in a humiliating media storm.
The most important thing we can learn about making mistakes is that taking responsibility for our actions leaves us in control of our lives. Owning our mistakes and having the ability to clean them up empowers us to live our lives in ways that make us feel fulfilled, happy, and courageous.