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Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

The Art and Science of Mistakes

Some mistakes should be encouraged—and others should be avoided.

Source: By John Snape (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As I’ve mentioned previously, successful people assume that life is a trial-and-error experience. Winston Churchill’s wise declaration: “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” He alludes to the fact that mistakes are often necessary for growth and, in some situations, they are to be encouraged. Other mistakes, however, we would like to avoid if at all possible. With this, the topic of mistakes becomes more complex. Just how do we sift the “good mistakes” from those we seek to avoid? To provide some insight in this regard, I’d like to propose a model which distinguishes between three types of mistakes - Goal, Soul, and Hole Mistakes.

Let’s begin with Goal Mistakes . These refer to mistakes that occur when we choose purposefully to take on risk, usually as we endeavor to expand our lives in some way. They may arise when we are learning a new skill, such as golf or public speaking, or when we pursue new challenges or opportunities in our relationships or careers. To achieve success in these situations, two essential ingredients are necessary: coaching and trial-and-error learning. Our willingness to risk challenges our self-esteem or the threat of failure. Success requires  our willingness to accept honest feedback and continue trying.  While mistakes resulting from such endeavors may seem painful in the moment, the long-term costs are generally not as steep as other kinds of mistakes, while the potential rewards are enormous. We should encourage risking mistakes in this realm in order to grow.

Next, let’s look at Soul Mistakes . These are typically the result of weaknesses in our skill set, character, or awareness. These are mistakes we unintentionally make when we don’t know ourselves as well as we could. Soul Mistakes are usually much more serious, costly, and painful than Goal Mistakes. They can cause havoc in our lives, especially if they occur after we have achieved success. It is usually in our best interest to avoid these. When we know where our weaknesses are, we can work toward improvement and watch for potential hazards. For example, suppose you have lived all your life in a warm climate, but you’re flying to Boston in the middle of winter. If you are aware that you lack the skills necessary for safe winter driving, you might choose to use a taxi or the train rather than taking on the icy roads yourself. However, if you aren’t aware that you lack this critical skill, you might make a mistake that could be very costly to yourself and others. The same holds true in other important life situations. For example, when you get a promotion or fall in love, it’s essential that you know what skills and qualities are needed, and which you possess, in order to be successful. At work, although you may be an expert in product sales, the skills of leadership and negotiation may be more important in a management role; and when falling in love, awareness of your own character strengths, as well as any unhealthy emotional blocks or needs, may help you to succeed and to avoid self-defeating mistakes in the process. Not having particular skills will not doom you to failure in work or in love, if you are aware of the need to develop the skills. We will delve further into this complex idea in an upcoming blog.

The final type of mistakes in this model are Hole Mistakes . Mistakes of this type are more costly than Goal Mistakes as well, as they often result in significant regret that transcends the moment or situation. These mistakes reveal themselves at significant moments in life, such as when a doctor gives us bad news, or on decade birthdays when we revisit our priorities and perhaps realize we have not spent our time and energy where it was most wise. We may wish we had given more to our health or our relationships and the regret that washes over us can be very painful. While we typically want to avoid these types of mistakes, when they do occur they can provide us with important information to guide our future choices.

If you are human, you have likely made all three types of mistakes - Goal, Soul, and Hole - at some point along your way. Goal Mistakes we may want to encourage in order to continue our growth. Soul and Hole Mistakes are usually the most painful, and we may want to avoid these when possible. However, when they do occur, we can appreciate them for the gift of awareness they bring, as they can lead us toward new, ever more important goals. In upcoming blogs, I will expand on the complex nature of Soul Mistakes, then share with you some strategies for minimizing the quantity of mistakes and maximizing learning when they do occur. Together, we will discover how to make mistakes stepping stones instead of stumbling blocks.