Motivate September 2018

The Best Mistake You’ve Ever Made


Written By: Jennifer Webb

Often when I teach a class, I begin by asking participants to name one of the best pieces of advice they’ve ever received. And I get answers like “Put on your big-girl panties” or “If no one died today, it’s fixable.”

The really interesting comments, however, come when I ask the best mistakes they’ve ever made.

What always seems to happen next is a discussion on the importance of resilience, how to bounce back when we’ve made mistakes that sometimes send life and career spinning out of balance – and the importance of letting go of any resentment we may still have toward ourselves over our mistakes.

Resilience is often the deciding factor in whether we are successful or not, healthy or not or functioning or dysfunctional.

Resilience can be learned. Groundbreaking work on resilience is being done by leading psychologists to help soldiers most likely to encounter trauma to avoid PTSD through Resilience Training Intervention, or RTI.

Researchers found that people who are resilient, who bounce back from mistakes or failures, have an internal locus of control, meaning they believe that they, and not their circumstances, affect their achievements. They don’t see themselves as helpless victims at the mercy of a boss, their family, the economy, the government or other other circumstances they can’t control.

Perception is key.

Psychologists say the experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construct.

Whether a potentially traumatic event becomes traumatic or not depends on your perception. For example, if two of us both lost our jobs because our company closed, one of us might see it as the end of the world, while the other might decide it is a wake-up call to go back to school.

Years ago, a friend of mine told me her son got rejection letters from Princeton, Harvard and Dartmouth, all the same day. He told his mother he was amazed how three great institutions could make such a mistake by not admitting him.

He went to Ohio State, graduated in three years and got to turn down Harvard law school, going to Yale.

Along with perception is self-awareness, paying attention to how we’re thinking so we can adjust as needed.

I often talk about ANTS, Dr. Daniel Amen’s acronym that reminds us that if we’re not vigilant with our thoughts, it’s easy to fall into the trap of Automatic Negative Thought Syndrome.

The key is to adjust how we’re thinking. People who see failure as a mistake are resilient. People who see failure as shame have difficulty rising above it.

As we monitor our thoughts and change our perception, we need to remember that our beliefs are just what we make them. They’re nothing more than a series of thoughts we’ve thought again and again and given them validity. We’re all habitual thinkers, so as we start to create new thoughts and repeat them, we start to change our beliefs.

And watch out for icebergs, beliefs that are so far below the surface that we aren’t even aware of them, but they get in the way of our growth and successes. Examples are a belief that says failure is a sign of weakness, or one that says asking for help means not having the discipline and ability to do something on our own.

Reframe failure or mistakes as information that helps you grow, steps in the process of success. Author J.K. Rowling described to a Harvard grad class a perfect storm of failure – broken marriage, disapproval from her parents, poverty that bordered on homelessness — that sent her back to her first dream of writing because she had nothing left to lose.

“Failure stripped away everything inessential,” she said. “It taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way.”

In the Resilience Training Initiative, soldiers are taught to use three powerful exercises that can easily be replicated in the business world.

  1. Think of three good things that went well today and dwell on those things all week.
  2. Think of your “best future self” and focus on a future — just a day at a time — in which everything has gone well, goals have been accomplished and how that feels.
  3. Spend 15 minutes remembering someone you’re grateful for and write a letter to that person discussing what you’re appreciative of, then don’t send it. If you feel so inclined, pick up the phone and tell them you appreciate what they’ve done for you.

Will learning to be more resilient stop us from making mistakes? Unfortunately, we’ll probably just keep on making them; it’s called being human.

Yet, when we can immediately identify the mistake as the past, something we learned from and we’ve chosen not to give any energy to, we’re well on our way to saving time and aggravation and getting in the right frame of mind to find smarter answers and better solutions. It’s all in the perception.

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