I have spent much of my career seeking to understand how people succeed in the areas of work, health, and relationships. Early on, exploring mistakes was of less interest to me, since the research assures us that successful people make more mistakes than unsuccessful people. However, in taking a closer look at mistakes in recent years, I have discovered that there is a benefit to understanding mistakes in understanding the drivers of success as well.
First, let’s consider the various types of mistakes we might make. As we introduced in the August, 2016 blog, there are some mistakes we want or need to make, some so we can learn from them and grow in our skills and understanding, and others so we learn to forgive. Other mistakes, however, are the type that we would like to – or must - avoid at all costs. Worrying about the second type of mistake is one reason why some of us try to avoid all mistakes, even at the expense of pursuing our dreams.
Mistakes are almost always painful, of course, and some can be quite costly in myriad ways. At a result, at the realization of a mistake, many of us become harsh with ourselves, using the mistake as a weapon to label us a failure or loser, which adds agony to the initial pain of the error. The beating we give ourselves can be summed up in a quote from the writer-director-comic, Woody Allen:
"The one regret in life I have is that I am not somebody else."
Knowing this, why do some of us still make the same mistakes again and again; and why is it so hard for many of us to admit mistakes and feel willing to share them?
To explore these questions, perhaps begin by asking friends over dinner to share some of their biggest mistakes. Just watch the energy in the room drop! This is because we seldom embrace the memory of our disappointments, nor do we want others to become aware of them, preferring instead to focus on our successes. Lillian Hellman captured this aversion beautifully:
"We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads.
It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to
contemplate them, psychotic to dwell upon them."
Although most of us certainly know a mistake when we see one, let me share a definition. A mistake is any result which is unexpected and unwanted. There is an argument frequently encountered that says focusing on mistakes is, in itself, a mistake. This suggests that such focus is the embodiment of negative thinking, and a downer at that. However, the opposite is true: The more we reflect positively on past mistakes, and anticipate and plan for potential mistakes, the fewer we are likely to make.
One of the best examples of this is the commercial airline industry - one of the greatest miracles in modern life. Smaller jets can be comprised of over a million parts, and there are approximately 400,000 flights per day world-wide. However, for the most part, people book flights with relative ease, arrive within a reasonable time frame at their selected destinations, and receive their luggage predominantly intact. What are the odds that anything built by humans, flown by humans, guided by humans could achieve that level of perfection?
The reason for their success is that the entire process of building, repairing, and flying airplanes is based on the principle that anything humans touch they can screw up! As a result, the industry builds in procedures that consistently expect and seek to reduce human error. For example, when the air traffic controller gives the pilot instructions about speed and altitude, clearly a simple set of commands, the pilot repeats back what they heard. They anticipate that even the simplest of communication can be misheard, so they build in an automatic double-check system. A pilot may have flown thousands of hours across decades, but each and every time still will go through a checklist before leaving the gate to be sure that no critical step has been forgotten.
So how might this guide us in our daily and lifetime endeavors? It suggests that anticipating, identifying, and correcting mistakes quickly, then setting up systems to reduce them in the future may indeed be an essential skill set for achieving and sustaining success in our own work, health and relationships.