Penicillin. Potato chips. The Slinky. Scotch Gard. The Pacemaker. Fireworks. Post-its.
What if there were no mistakes? I’m not saying that everything happens for some big-picture “lesson” (that’s another post), or that we should like everything that happens. But what if everything that happens is just an experience? What if we have the ability to choose whether to see it as desirable or something that we would prefer not to repeat? Would that help to let go when things don’t go quite the way we planned?
By now, you’ve probably guessed that the items on the list at the top are all mistakes. Alexander Fleming, for instance, was working in his lab, trying to find a “miracle” drug to cure disease. He, as many of us can relate to, had a hard time with organization! His lab was untidy, and he forgot to clean his petri dishes and close the windows when he left for vacation. He came back to a moldy mess.
Fleming noticed, while cleaning, that one mold dissolved all the bacteria around it. Eventually, after nurturing the mold, he discovered penicillin. It wasn't what he had been looking for; it was a mistake.
Our reaction to mistakes is what counts. Maybe you don't need to pick your mistakes out of the trash, like Sir Fleming, but you can use them as a learning experience. Studies** have found that we respond in two ways when we make a mistake:
“A mistake? Oh, no, I'm done. That's it. I'm leaving the building.” Some people, sometimes, shut down because their brain perceives the mistake as a threat. (Mostly a threat to their self-image! The brain is vain.)
“A mistake? Ok, what happened, why, and what can I do differently next time?”
When we believe our intelligence is malleable – the “practice makes perfect” mentality – we pay more attention to our mistakes and are more likely to learn from them. After a mistake, instead of shutting down, we activate our brains and become more alert and aware in subsequent situations. We're less likely to make the same type of mistake – and less likely to beat ourselves up for making the first one!
As parents, we're bound by immutable laws to be flawed. Alas, it is our fate; we're perfectly imperfect. But how we react to mistakes we make and those our kids make - now that's the stuff.
And when we model positive reactions (“Whoops. I tried DIY plumbing and broke the kitchen faucet. What happened and why? And how can I shut off this geyser of water?”) and teach our kids that mistakes are learning experiences (“Next time, I'll read the instruction manual more thoroughly – or better yet, call a plumber. Live and learn.”), it can relieve some of the pressure on them – and on us – to always have to “get it right.”
Not every mistake will be a pleasant experience, but every mistake can be a learning experience. To take it a step further, what if you assume that people (including you) generally do the best they can when they can? When looking at an experience you consider “undesirable,” what would it mean to see it as your best possible action at the time? And as a stepping stone to a different, more desirable, action in the future?
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