Poet extraordinaire Nikki Giovanni once said, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts.” If it’s true that we all make mistakes, then why do we spend so much time beating ourselves up when we mess up?
“We spend too much time focusing on the negative aspects of what has occurred,” says Sharon Boyd-Jackson, a clinical psychologist in Union, New Jersey. We are socialized from childhood to succeed, she says, rewarded when we do well and punished when we do badly. “We internalize those early messages.”
But like the proverbial silver lining, Boyd-Jackson maintains that upon reflection, some of the best lessons we learn are birthed out of the most difficult moments in our lives. This was true for LaTasha Thompson, a recruiter in Milwaukee. Thompson accidentally placed a paycheck that should have been delivered by mail a week earlier into the employee pick-up drawer. The check got buried, was presumed lost, and was voided and reissued by the company’s financial officer. The employee who earned the check long assumed that the money was on the way as usual, and she wrote out personal checks to pay her expenses. Needless to say, they bounced.
“I was so embarrassed,” says Thompson, 22. “I should have looked more carefully to see which checks went where. I felt like I didn’t do my job to the best of my ability.”
For those willing to do a little reflecting, errors often turn out to be valuable experiences, says Nancy Birnbaum-Gerber, an entrepreneur and life coach in Atlanta. “Knowing what to do about—and with—our mistakes is one of the best success tools around.”
5 Ways to Make Mistakes Work for You
Mistakes can help improve our next attempts at success, says Nancy Birnbaum-Gerber, who owns SteppingStones, a coaching firm in Atlanta. To turn past blunders into future triumphs, she recommends the following:
- Accept the reality that mistakes are part of everyone’s life—even yours. You have made, are making, and will always make mistakes. As the saying goes, “To err is human.” Make peace with this fact of life.
- Find people with whom you can process the situation. Seek out honest, empathetic, trustworthy supporters who will not sugarcoat their feedback.
- Accept responsibility for your mistakes. Take some time for self-reflection and ponder your role in the situation, how your behavior may have affected other peoples’ actions, and what you can do better next time.
- Differentiate between the small stuff and situations that are warning signals. Forgetting someone’s name once, for example, is no big deal. Perpetually scrambling at the last minute to finish tasks, however, warrants a closer look at your behavior.
- Own the duty to prevent the mistakes from recurring. Share your insights with others whom may have been affected. Tell them how you’ll change your behavior and ask for input.