Mistakes

Are you letting your errors carry too much weight?

As we all breathe a sigh of relief now that the sun is shining and the spring weather is beginning to welcome us out of the long winter, Ohioans are prone to being a bit overzealous in our initial forays outside.

We, like many others, have sent the kids outdoors as much as we possibly can now that the weather has broken. But since it isn’t quite warm yet, when our kids come inside, they’re chilly.

This weekend, my daughters begged for hot cocoa when they came through the door after playing outside for a couple of hours, so I scraped the bottom of the container that has been well used this winter and obliged, accepting the guarantee that I’d be cleaning up a hot-cocoa-related mess within an hour.

True to form, about 20 minutes later, my 3-year-old, Maggie, came into the kitchen and matter of factly said, “Mom, I spilled hot cocoa everywhere. Come help me clean it up.” So, we grabbed the dish towel and mopped up the mess.

It made me smile, though, the way she addressed the situation. Maggie wasn’t emotional about the mistake, wasn’t filled with remorse or fear that she wouldn’t get more, wasn’t concerned about the impact of the mess. She simply recognized the problem and came for help.

In my work life, I lead a team of brilliant and hardworking people who work diligently with a heavy workload, managing tons of details. As our team has grown, we’ve all made mistakes along the way as we learn how to do our jobs.

The great thing about our line of work is, while mistakes are unfortunate, they are low stakes; everyone survives when an email automation isn’t built correctly. Moreover, when mistakes happen, they inform the future in a way that builds wisdom and shapes new processes for the future.

Yet, when mistakes happen, in most cases they’re accompanied with a tremendous amount of emotion. Shame, remorse and fear stir up for the person who’s made the error in most cases, and cleaning up the mess is a process of repairing the mistake and learning from it, as well as helping the individual work through the emotional upheaval of the problem.

I’m wired this way, without a doubt, causing myself an insane amount of emotional stress when I screw up. It took 3-year-old Maggie, though, to teach me that this is a learned behavior. Maggie was matter-of-fact about her mistake, with no shame attached. Her spilled cocoa didn’t shape her identity or self-confidence in any way, nor should it.

Yet, why do so many smart, competent adults allow our errors to shape us and shame us? 

Speaking for myself, learned self-deprecation is a byproduct of being a high-achieving student in my youth. School came easily for me, and with little effort, I got all A’s, therefore I received a lot of praise for my perfect performance.

Through little fault of the adults in my life, I took away from that season of life that perfection was the aim and anything less than perfection from me would be tolerated to a point, but met with disappointment because more was expected from me.

Broadly, children of the 1990s weren’t rewarded or awarded when we tried our best and failed, so those of us who learned how to play the game only tried to do the things we knew we could succeed at. 

So, as adults, there’s a whole generation of us who excelled as kids and continue to excel as adults with a mantle of perfection that has no business in a modern workplace that asks us to take risks and be willing to boldly fail.

When we do fail, we bully ourselves with self-loathing confirmations of our secret suspicion that we were bad or worthless all along and that we were just waiting for the moment everyone would find out. 

If we can begin to reconnect with those smart kids, though, we can begin to leave behind that binary thinking that allows for perfection and nothing else. We can pick them up, dust them off and send them forward from their mistakes and remind them that who they are is not defined by their mistakes, that goodness is not perfection and that it’s just spilled cocoa that needs mopped up, nothing more.

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