Learning from your mistakes is smart; learning from other people’s mistakes is genius.Anonymous
Can I give you a cold shot of some brutal honesty here? You make mistakes.
Boom. How did that feel? Let’s face it, you make mistakes all the time. So do I. So does the person in the car next to you while you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic. So is the lady standing in front of you at the checkout while she struggles to find her wallet and you’re running late for an appointment.
So is that coworker you can’t stand, the boss you look up to, and even your mother and father who never seemed to do anything wrong (when you were a child and they were superheroes and larger than life).
Mistakes are a part of life. You’ve made thousands upon thousands of them already, no matter how old or young you are. And guess what? You’re going to make thousands upon thousands more before it’s all said and done.
Some mistakes are more serious than others. Some can cause you pain, loss, and even hurt people you care about. Some mistakes can leave you reeling for months or even years afterward.
Most mistakes, though, can be quickly forgotten, brushed aside, or shrugged off. If you’re struggling to get your mind past certain mistakes, if you keep obsessing over them, you can get stuck in the same place. That’s not going to lead anywhere, especially not anywhere good.
In fact, it can cause you to make even bigger mistakes just standing still.
Never Underestimate the Power of Mistakes
Making a critical mistake at work, at home, in a relationship, or even with your friends can certainly cause some problems. You can brood about them, obsess over them, and mentally replay the situation over and over and over.
You keep imagining making a different choice, saying something different, or simply turning and walking away. You cringe every time the video replays in your mind and you see what you did or hear what you said and you just want to shout to your past self, “Will you stop?!”
Just because mistakes happen to everyone doesn’t make them frivolous. Mistakes can cause us to get stuck in a rut or worse, move backward or even hide away.
How many times in your life have you made a significant mistake and then, when confronted with a similar opportunity in the future, decided not to even try again?
A boy who was just starting to find his way in social circles had a crush on a girl in his class. His friends goaded him to ask her out, but he was shy. It took all his courage, everything he could muster to just say two words to her and they wanted him to ask her out?
After stressing about this for days, even weeks, he finally grabbed enough courage and clumsily walked over to her desk before class. She looked up at him and he stammered, “You want to go out with me?” She laughed. It started as a surprised chuckle that quickly devolved into hysterical laughter. How was he to know she thought he was a complete dork, geek, or just plain pathetic? His face flushed the colour of blood, the blood he wished was seeping out of his body right in that moment so he could just die and not have to deal with the embarrassment that would follow him throughout the rest of this class, day, week, and maybe even school year.
What’s going to happen the next time he likes a girl in school? Even if his friends are better friends by then and offer positive encouragement, really want to see him happy, it’s going to take a lot more for him to break out of his comfort zone and even face the prospect of that ‘mistake’ again.
Mistakes can freeze us in life, prevent us from moving forward, and cause us to feel completely miserable.
Overthinking the Unthinkable
Making one simple mistake has the potential to cause us to overthink everything. Many times these issues we begin ruminating over are minor. They’re insignificant. They don’t even matter to the outcome, but suddenly they take on far more importance in the wake of that tremor that was a mistake and becomes a tsunami overrunning our life.
When you begin overthinking things, wondering what you could have done differently, strategizing every detail as though you would actually have another opportunity to do it all over again (for the first time) doesn’t help.
Sure, it can make a difference for you moving forward, but far too many people get stuck in what’s commonly referred to as “rumination.” Rumination is this idea that we could have done things differently and the outcome we experienced would have been dramatically different.
It’s fine to think about mistakes and things we did in relation to improving our approach, decisions, or ideas in the future, but rumination is only rooted in the past. Not only will ruminating about a past event get you stuck there, it often prods other memories to come to the surface, very few of them pleasant.
Before you realize it, you’re chastising yourself, scolding your past self for those mistakes, and wondering why in the world you even thought something could have been possible in the first place.
A Serious Blow to Esteem
The longer a person ruminates on their past mistakes, the more it’s going to affect their ability to make changes in a positive way moving forward. It will affect their ability to problem solve and may actually increase stress, anxiety, and depression.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself numerous times. You start ruminating about these mistakes and wonder why you weren’t more ambitious, didn’t think through things better, failed to be as disciplined as you should have been, were more organized, or had a more charismatic and positive attitude.
As you begin tripping down these paths, you start to see nothing but flaws in your personality, behavior, and mentality. While you may have thought of yourself positively before, had good positive self-esteem in the past, suddenly you’re doubting everything.
You wonder why your partner, spouse, or person you’re dating could even have any interest in you. All those dreams and hopes of climbing the corporate ladder or becoming a successful entrepreneur suddenly fall into a state of limbo, rattling along the edge of some fine line and losing their balance. Have you ever tried balancing a top on a string while it’s shaking? It’s not going to work for long!
Ruminating may not happen all the time, but the more you do it, the worse you feel, the more frustrated you become by any and every mistake, the more likely you’re going to slip down that slope far too frequently in the future.
We Need to Understand the Power of Mistakes
While he was struggling to bring a dream of his to life, Thomas Edison was interviewed by a local newspaper journalist about why he continued to try and invent this crazy thing called a ‘light bulb’ when he had failed already over 2,000 times.
Without missing a beat, without any doubt creeping into his mindset, he answered simply, ‘I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.’
Imagine how dark the world would be today if he had given up. If he ruminated about his past mistakes, viewing them as failures rather than opportunities, this world would be a much different place. Sure, someone would have eventually gotten around to inventing a working light bulb, but would it have been that year? 10 years later? 50?
Mistakes don’t have to be devastating. Sometimes the damage will be extensive, and if it is the result of carelessness, arrogance, or other negative attitudes, that certainly needs to change, but if mistakes are the byproduct of genuine effort and the right attitude, there’s always going to be something to take away from it that will prepare you for the next opportunity.
How Can You Avoid Tripping Down That Slope?
One of the first things you need to realize is there are likely triggers in your life. There may be certain types of mistakes that really get you ruminating about them and, ultimately, all those other similar mistakes in your past.
You need to take a careful assessment of every time you got stuck in one of these ruts and couldn’t break that dangerous mindset. What did those mistakes have in common? Or was it something in your life that was going on, such as relationship challenges, financial stress, or health issues?
It could involve working with people you didn’t really know and couldn’t quite trust just yet. It might have involved feeling inferior to people you viewed as being ‘smarter’ than you (at the time).
Evaluate the situation carefully and honestly and when you do, you should begin picking up the signs, the triggers, that lead you inexorably down that rumination path.
Second, understand the difference between rumination and problem-solving. There may certainly be times when you get a wonderful idea or discover a better way of doing things through rumination. That’s perfectly fine, but when we’re talking about rumination, we’re talking about all thoughts negative that lead nowhere good.
It is perfectly fine and completely acceptable (including positive in some situations) to evaluate mistakes that you made, so long as you’re looking for solutions moving forward rather than seeking blame.
Third, some people may describe it as developing a ‘thicker skin,’ but it’s a lot more than that. It’s helping your mind learn to let things go.
This is not easy to do, but it’s a skill and with every skill people possess, it takes time to develop and hone. A good way to start training your brain to let go of the detritus (or dead skin cells, so to speak) is to distract yourself when you notice those triggers or begin ruminating.
Turn to an activity that’s mentally engaging, something that’s truly going to keep your mind occupied for at least several minutes. When you have to concentrate on something else, you won’t have any real mental capacity to keep focusing on the mistakes.
You can also go for a walk or jog as that’s a wonderful way people can clear their mind, but if you have extreme difficulty refocusing those thoughts, it may be best to start with activities that require your full attention.
Get Ready to Make More Mistakes
Embrace the fact that you will make mistakes. Don’t try to avoid them to the point you get frozen in place or stuck; you’ll only get shut out in the cold.
Instead, take the attitude Edison had: view them as ways you now know not to do something. You’ll be setting yourself up for success … probably quite soon!
Joseph is a senior advisor at the Senate of Canada. Joseph enjoys writing, blogging and teaching. You can follow Joseph via Twitter @josephsoares.