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Living In Peace With And Leveraging Your Mistakes

Updated on September 30, 2013

Living In Peace With And LeveragingYour Mistakes

September 30, 2013

Winston Wayne Wilson


In the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” That said, other than death and taxes, one of the other most vilified words in the English language is “mistakes”. As humans, we do not like making mistakes and sometimes we treat mistakes like sticks that we use to beat ourselves over the head with. However, without making mistakes, we learn nothing and our lives become less useful to others. Thus, the goal is to learn how to have a peaceful existence with our past mistakes as well as leverage them to recalibrate our future actions so that we can be more successful. This is much easier said than done. However, here are four things you can do to live more peacefully with and better leverage your mistakes:

  1. Accept, not correct mistakes. Mistakes are like exited dreams – just like how you cannot re-enter a dream after you awake you also cannot re-enter a mistake and fix it. What you must first do to peacefully co-exist with your mistakes is to accept them as they are rather than try to fruitlessly correct them. You cause more damage to your self-esteem by focusing too much time on your past mistakes and trying to correct them. Unlike the mistakes you make when you are typing, the ones you make in life cannot technically be corrected. You cannot simply use a magic eraser to obliterate your past mistakes. Further, the historical details of your mistakes cannot be amended because the day, time, place and people, who might have witnessed your mistake, are all part of a unique regrettable event that can never be recreated and successfully fixed. Again, you should seek to first accept, not try to correct your mistakes. Otherwise, you will only give birth to shame every time the memories of your past mistakes surface. If shame gains control of your life, it can adversely impact your productivity and ability to succeed. Further, shame makes you dispense too much of your time and energy regretting your mistakes. Unfortunately, regret is not a strategy for successful living; however, forgiveness is. Specifically, to overcome feelings of shame about your past mistakes, it is important to forgive yourself and move on. Forgiveness is the evidence that you have accepted your mistakes as they are and that you have conquered shame. When you forgive yourself for your mistakes you are able to accept the fact that you are human and mistakes are inevitable. Best of all, when you forgive yourself you get to reclaim and redirect the lost energy into positive and productive actions that can lead you to much greater success.
  2. Steer, not fear mistakes. As Elbert Hubbard points out, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” When you live in fear of making mistakes, you wind up doing nothing because you are immobilized by fear. Unfortunately, however, success will never come to you if you do nothing. Further, fearing mistakes is not part of the secret recipe for success. Dale Carnegie points to the appropriate way to handle your mistakes in his observation that “The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.” Sometimes part of being successful is being willing to experimentally steer yourself in different directions until you find your bearing and land on the right path. Therefore, instead of living in fear of makings mistakes you should find the courage to steer yourself down a different path than the one you took when you made the mistake. In other words, while you cannot correct past mistakes you can seek out opportunities to try again and do better. In many ways, making a mistake in life is like failing a test. However, life looks at your average score when you steer yourself down the path of retaking a particular test. This is great news because it means that, although you cannot get rid of the bad score, if you study more and retake the test, you will give yourself an opportunity to get a much higher score that will bring your average up and rebuild your confidence. Success oftentimes occurs in stages. Thus, some people might take the test and ace it on the first attempt while others might need to take the test two, three or even ten times. That is OK. The key is to keep steering yourself forward by trying to improve your test score in life rather than getting stuck because of the fear of failing.
  3. Learn to make better mistakes. As Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, points out, “Only those who are asleep make no mistakes.” As long as you are alive, you will continue to make mistakes. The best you can achieve in life is to learn how to make better mistakes in the future than you did in the past. You do this by leveraging your past mistakes in order to find ways of reducing the number of disastrous consequences to your actions. Mistakes are priceless data – that is why they make the best learning tools. They are like valuable trial and error processes in scientific experiments. It is the process of making and leveraging mistakes that can lead you to an important personal discovery or breakthrough. In other words, if you leverage your mistakes well enough you can be more successful. That said, all mistakes are not created equally – some are in fact better than others. According to the great Oscar Wilde, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” Thus, learning to make better mistakes is the essence of what it means to be “experienced”. Sometimes a mistake can feel like a really bad tattoo on your forehead – it is there for the world to see. However, part of gaining experience is learning how to own up to your mistakes – no matter how hideous – and committing to making less severe ones in the future. Denying your mistakes or pretending that they did not happen is always more destructive than the mistakes themselves because you will then be bound to repeat them.
  4. Let old mistakes die and new ones be born. Melanie Griffiths, in an interview with AARP magazine, attributed her successful marriage to the fact that she and her husband “Let old things die and new things be born.” Some of our past mistakes are not worth waking up. You must let them transition into blissful oblivion so that newer, more positive experiences can be born. I mentioned above that making mistakes is like failing a test but life allows you to average up your scores when you re-take the test. However, there are some tests that are not worth re-taking. It is OK to let mistakes die and be forgotten when, other than overwhelming embarrassment or disappointment, those mistakes do not really affect your ability to function in the future. When you let these kinds of mistakes die you liberate yourself to explore new experiences and to evolve. Examples of these disposable mistakes include bad relationship and career choices; biting off more than you can chew; and putting your foot in your mouth. These can be very embarrassing mistakes but we need not obsess with trying to get a redo if you can live your life successfully in the future without addressing those mistakes. The key is to not let your self-esteem suffer from these disposable mistakes. Forget that they happened, destroy the memory and the pictures and move on.

My challenge for you is to evaluate whether you are living in peace with and effectively leveraging your mistakes to live your best life. If not, the above steps will help you to develop a better relationship with your mistakes. Remember, there is a purpose for mistakes in your life but they are not to beat yourself over the head with.


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      Mahogany W 4 years ago

      Thanks for this...this is a valuable lesson to learn. Mistakes are going to occur in this life...the key is how we handle them.