In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and mistakes. And yes, I have misquoted Benjamin Franklin but it’s true and making mistakes is pure genius (unlike the other two). Making mistakes is something we all do – how else are we to grow and evolve?

Mistakes happen when we apply an internal belief to a situation where the reality was different – the logic that we applied to a situation turned out to be wrong.

“Our brains are constantly trying to predict how the world works. We do this by building internal models through experience and learning when we interact with the world.” – Steven Chase, Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition

Mistakes are emotionally painful because they chip away at our self-image and our tightly held beliefs. If we have the opportunity to down-play our mistakes or find an alternative plausible explanation for our faulty actions (rationalisation to reduce the conflict between our beliefs and reality), then some of us take it. The rest of us avoid talking about them altogether.

Distorting reality to protect our ego

These choices directly affect our behaviour and our mood. For example, one day you decide to try a different route to work because you believe it will be quicker. However, the journey actually takes longer because there are more transitions (that you missed when working out the route) and more stairs to walk up (that you couldn’t have known about unless you were familiar with the station).

By the time you get to work, your story has changed from ‘user error’ or ‘learning curve’ to inaccurate information on the part of the transport provider – you’ve just rationalised events so your ego and self-esteem are protected. (This is one of the reasons why our memories are not always accurate.) Or, if you avoid talking about it altogether, you may find yourself being short tempered with workmates because you feel stressed and need to rush to a meeting.

The problem with rationalisation or denial is that we distort perceived reality – in other words, we give the impression to others that we don’t make mistakes. And yet it is through making mistakes that our brains grow the most, that we learn the fastest.

Sharing mistakes makes us kinder and better storytellers

We are social emotional animals which means we can feel each other’s pain when one of us makes a mistake – our response is automatic and instinctive. When someone is telling us a story about a mistake they’ve made, we can anticipate the ‘what happened next’ moment where we wince at their dilemma or situation.

Given that mistakes are glorious learning moments and given that we are social emotional animals, we can deepen our learning through sharing our mistakes in at least two ways.

First, sharing our mistakes is a process that takes us from a place of pain and embarrassment to a place of humility and humour. We move from an anxious state towards being more forgiving and compassionate towards ourselves. That is a gift waiting for us – it’s a gift that helps us judge others less and find compassion for others more often.

Second, as social emotional animals who feel the pain of others, when we share our painful mistakes, we expand the reach of learning from just ourselves to everyone listening to our story. Through our own defining moments, we create learning opportunities for others. This is why stories are so powerful.

Learning makes us mentally stronger and happier

Following the research of Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck of Columbia University, New York, we understand that, in classrooms, an influential factor in learning is when teachers praise students for effort and not intelligence. Students praised for their effort cared less about how they performed compared to their peers and went on to perform future tasks better than students praised for their intelligence.

Recognising effort over intelligence builds our resilience and it’s cyclical. Learning requires us to make mistakes. A willingness to make mistakes demonstrates effort, persistence and grit. Comfort with making mistakes is a sign that you have a growth mindset and that you love to learn and improve.

As human beings, we have a natural desire to learn and progress. Psychologists call it mastery… Learning also fuels our creativity. Ideas can come from making connections between seemingly unrelated things. Learning something new in one area of our lives can trigger ideas in another. So curiosity and creative thinking go hand-in-hand. – Alex King, Action for Happiness

In fact, when we get the right balance of challenge and learning, we can find ourselves in a state of flow – completely immersed and engrossed, or ‘in the zone’. Two powerful neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are flooding our brains making us feel good, helping us to focus and stay calm as well as improve our memory and our ability to learn. We get similar feelings when we are outdoors being physically active or exercising.

Embracing our mistakes is liberating

Denying our mistakes feeds into the imposter syndrome, sits at odds with our sense of self, induces unnecessary threats, and creates distorted images of what success looks like.

The imposter syndrome, recognised by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, is experienced by most successful people as they become even more successful. It is the fear of being exposed as having lead everyone along or been deceitful in someway (often unfounded). Being found out risks no longer belonging which is a strong evolutionary need in us humans. Fear of being found out causes great anxiety and stress.

Hiding our mistakes (and worrying that we may be exposed or found out) chips away at our confidence and our self-belief. In explorations with clients about values, I can share that most of us hold values like integrity, honesty and truth as critical to our identity and drivers of our behaviours. So when we hide mistakes, we are creating friction and contradictions in ourselves because we are not honouring our values.

Embracing our mistakes is liberating because by the very act of owning them, we remove any risk that others can hold them over us. The stress rests in the risk that we will be found out and that the information coming to light could harm us. Owning it disarms those who might like to use it as leverage in conversations or negotiations – think of the kid who got bullied at school but who learned to tell jokes about himself before they could tease or ridicule him. The effect is that he disarms his aggressors and his aggressors end up liking him and leaving him alone.

In embracing our mistakes we also liberate ourselves from false prestige – the need to maintain a facade of unblemished success. Famous people and heroes (or rather their PR agents) do an incredible job of distorting reality and building unreasonable expectations for the rest of us to meet. Holding the bar at this false perception level is not good for our self-confidence and limits our ability to be more compassionate, relate to and be a resource to other people, and to share great learning stories.

“You don’t learn from successes; you don’t learn from awards; you don’t learn from celebrity; you only learn from wounds and scars and mistakes and failures. And that’s the truth.” — Jane Fonda

Our survival depends on making mistakes

Evolution in nature has been critical to the survival of species and their adaptation to changing environments. So at work, the ability of an organisation to survive is based on its ability to evolve to changing customer needs, which in turn is critically dependent on having a culture that has a healthy attitude towards risk and mistakes. Trial and error creates better solutions and constantly improving processes.

Next time you find yourself smarting from making a mistake, move into it rather than shying away from it. Hold it a little longer and consider:

  • What is the learning moment here for me?
  • Which of my values is being compromised?
  • What happens next and who is impacted by my choice?
  • Who could benefit from my mistake?
  • What is challenging my ego right now?

Being human is all about making mistakes. It shows vulnerability (I can relate to you, I’ve felt that too) and strength/resilience (you’ve just inspired me, I’m impressed by your attitude). At once, you are more human and inspiring – you draw others to you. In return, you belong.