What I learned about mistakes that you need to know.

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It started when you were really young.

That fear of admitting you did something wrong.

It was always tempting to cover it up because you learned quickly that doing something wrong usually came with consequences.  Most likely, you got a talking to at the very least.

Then there was school. You occasionally did things that were wrong at school, and now they were on paper.

They were called mistakes, and they were often circled in the dreaded red pen.

It makes sense that a test would sit in your bag for a few days waiting for just the right moment to be shown to your parents - when they were too busy to really look at it.

There’s never been anything fun about admitting your mistakes.

But making mistakes just might be the most valuable thing that we can do for ourselves.


Mistakes have gotten a bad rap.


They often come with lectures, evil stares, and can be used against us to make us feel like we’re losers or we’re stupid.

We want to live in a perfect world. One where you don’t make mistakes and everything goes according to plan.  Well, at least that’s the dream.



But the reality is, people are out there making mistakes moment after moment. They’re just not posting them on Facebook where all the perfect pictures are.  (Hmmm. Note to self, start a new social media app about mistakes -  call it “Faceplant” - think of what we’d learn). 

Many people are tempted to keep quiet about them. And they have their reasons. There’s a lot written about that on the Internet, so I won’t go into detail, but here are a few reasons I’ve come across in my research:



1) Cognitive Dissonance – That’s when we hold two opposing ideas, beliefs, attitudes or opinions  at the same time. This causes tension in our brains that we naturally want to alleviate.  It could be: eating donuts is not wise because it’ll make me fat but I love a good Chocolate Dip.  But I can’t stop eating donuts, so I talk myself into how they’re not so bad after all and look for benefits to eating donuts. Getting a donut gives me a break from driving on long trips? The Chocolate Dip has the least number of calories at 190 per, that’s like eating 2 apples.  We do the same thing when we make mistakes. (BTW - Anyone want a donut?)


2) Our education - We’ve been taught for years that there is nothing good about being wrong.  I won’t go on about that. You know it as well as I do. 


3) We equate being wrong to being stupid. - This connects to our pride and our worry about how people will think of us (our reputation). And in the workplace, the fear that being wrong will cost us something.


Oh, the mistakes I’ve made…


I could go on and on here about mistake’s I have made, both professionally and personally, but you don’t have that much time.

But one of the unanticipated benefits of my having become a musician is the frequency of making mistakes. Well, more appropriately, the fact that you usually can’t hide them. 



You might think, hey, what’s the big deal about a wrong note? It’s not like you’re doing surgery, but imagine you’re playing a big cymbal crash in front of packed house at an orchestra concert.  I assure you playing it in the wrong place is a big deal.

And while you might get that past your audience, it’s unlikely you can get them past your colleagues or the boss (i.e. the conductor). That’s because they’re listening to you and counting on you to play your part right (i.e. do your job). The conductor even has your part right under his nose in his orchestral score (the piece of music with all the parts in it). Imagine if your boss could see every move of your day at a glance!

Over time you learn that mistakes happen to you and even the best players. (Maybe not as often to them, but they do happen).

When I entered University I was constantly trying to give my colleagues a good reason for my mistakes.

I remember playing in a group and every time I would make mistake and the group would have to stop, I would respond the same way. I would say it was because of this or because of that. It other words, I always had an excuse. I was always passing on the blame to something or someone else.

You’re probably not surprised to learn that my peers soon started to give me a hard time about this. Eventually I got the message.

I was even making a mistake about handling mistakes. Beat that!

While I got better, it wasn’t until I was doing my Masters degree that I really understood the power of mistakes and how they just weren’t going away.


I remember helping one of my teachers and mentors change the head (the playing surface) of a timpani drum.  I had always looked up to him because he had a career that I could only dream of.  I trusted him immensely. Read about why in this popular post.

When we took the head off that drum, he looked inside and noticed there were several dust bunnies at the bottom of the drum.  He immediately said, “Oh, there they are! Those are all the mistakes I made over the years playing that drum”. I loved the thought of that and it has always stuck with me.

At that time, when I was striving to be the best player I could be, that fellow (along with a few of my other teachers) helped me realize that no matter how good you are, mistakes are going to happen.

I realized that I needed to develop a comfort with my mistakes and learn how they could make me be better.

I began to look at mistakes as the great teachers that they are. How they can be motivators for growth, and how they can help you determine where you’ll invest your time and effort. 


Embrace them


Nobody wants to make mistakes but you’ve got to be realistic, they’re going to happen. You’ve got to own up to them when they do.

It’s something you need to remember when it’s your turn to lead.

One of my favourite things is the humility that is required to admit a mistake. For me, this creates likability.  Especially from leaders. 



What’s that you say?  You don’t want certain people making mistakes? Your doctors? your lawyers? Your boss?

Well, sorry! They all do!

If you’ve got 18 minutes, watch this moving and revealing TED talk by Dr. Brain Goldman about doctors’ mistakes and then think about your own batting average – you’ll need to watch the video to get my meaning.  I highly recommend it, and I found the humility of his admissions admirable.

You’ll get that the real problem with mistakes is not that we make them but the system (or way that we think about them).

Imagine a world in where there was no shame in making a mistake. And one where admitting a mistake was a sign of respect, of caring.  Mistakes take on a whole different appearance.



What you can do


As Dr. Goldman says in his talk, it all begins with you.

If you’re a leader, then owning up to your mistakes is the first step. You may need to provide some context as to what you were trying to do. Why you thought what you were doing was right, and what you learned. That’s not an excuse but what led you there.


Think of the power in this. These are not excuses, these are lessons.  Lessons you can share with everyone.  These are a gift so others don’t make the same mistakes.  Who wouldn’t be sitting in the room thinking “Wow, I’m glad I learned that”?

Demonstrate this attitude when your staff makes a mistake.  Instead of chastising or punishing, use the mistake as learning. That is what musicians like myself do.

Mistakes are fuel for improvement. The learning only happens if we light the fuel.

We all need to do that work if we want to do better next time.

Want to get better at what you do? Go out and make some mistakes. As always I welcome your thoughts and comments.