My daughter, Hannah, is kind of an anxious kid. Not as anxious as I was at her age, but still fairly concerned with doing the right thing. On the one hand, I like that she’s driven to good behaviour, because that certainly beats the alternative. On the other hand, she’s not even eight years old yet. If there’s ever a time when imperfection is okay, it’s now. The stakes are still really low for her, and I see this as the best time for her to explore and experiment, without fear of the consequences.
To help allay Hannah’s fears, I point out that mistakes are how we learn. I tell her how, when she was learning to walk, she fell down a lot. Each time, she got back up. The more that she tried and the more that she fell, the better she got, until soon she was steady on her feet. Babies, in my experience, are masters at learning through experimenting and falling down. They don’t become dejected by the process, they just keep at it.
At some point, however, we start to think that we shouldn’t make mistakes. We think that we should always know just what to do, and that we should never change our minds. Closing a business, quitting a volunteer gig, giving up knitting in disgust – all of these things seem, to our adult minds, to be a sign of weakness. A sign that we’ve made a mistake. And now, even my bright and beautiful daughter is starting to think that way. A mistake is a failure, a shortcoming, a source of shame.
When I embarked on my own personal Crafting my Life journey, I quickly realized that mistakes were inevitable. I was going from being an engineer to being a writer. While many people had nice things to say about my way with words, the truth was that I knew little to nothing about how to write. As a life-long perfectionist and Type A personality, this didn’t feel comfortable to me. I didn’t want to make mistakes. I didn’t want to appear weak. I wanted to know it all, before I even started. Even as I knew this was impossible, I viewed the mistakes with trepidation.
I’ve learned a thing or two about mistakes along the way, though. The first thing I learned is that the less you fight the mistakes, the easier they are. When you’re facing internal resistance, and every cell in your body is tensed in fear of doing the wrong thing, the worse it’s going to feel when the inevitable happens. On the other hand, the more that you can accept that it’s okay to be human, the less you’ll get caught up in a cycle of shame when things don’t go your way. It may not feel good, exactly, but it won’t feel terrible.
Something else I’ve learned about mistakes is that, in retrospect, they’re often the best thing that ever happened. I am a huge fan of The Princess Bride. Here’s a quote from that movie that always makes me laugh:
Buttercup – We’ll never succeed. We may as well die here.
Westley – No, no. We have already succeeded. I mean, what are the three terrors of the Fire Swamp? One, the flame spurt – no problem. There’s a popping sound preceding each; we can avoid that. Two, the lightning sand, which you were clever enough to discover what that looks like, so in the future we can avoid that too.
Westley suggests that Buttercup did them both a favour by falling into the lightning sand and almost dying, thereby forcing him to rescue her. She wasn’t making a mistake, she was making a discovery. Was it fun at the time? No. But by making it, she saved time and allowed them to avoid future danger, far more effectively than she could by almost any other means.
These days, when I absolve Hannah of her mistakes, I’m really absolving myself, too. I’m reminding us both that sometimes we’ll fall down, and that’s okay. In the end, those slip-ups are what make us who we are, and help us to avoid making the same mistake the next time around. They might not be fun, but the more we embrace them for what they are, the less terrible they’ll be.
Are you good at embracing your mistakes? Or are you a perfectionist, like me? Tell me all about it!