Why We Need to Make Mistakes

Young African American man with his hand on his head for a mistake, forgot, bad memory.

Can you recall a recent mistake you made? How did it make you feel? Guilty? Incompetent? Ashamed?

I have a very dear friend who struggled after he hired someone for a job in his newly-formed organization and discovered within the first two weeks that this person was not meeting expectations and clearly was not somebody suitable for the position. My friend felt terrible, took responsibility for not having the judgment to see that this might happen and wanted to share with the leadership of the organization how much he felt he let his organization down by this decision.

Jeanne Illsley Clarke presented the concept in her book Growing Up Again called Assertive Care. You use Assertive Care when you are in a position to firmly tell someone they need to do something differently because what they are doing is either unhealthy or unfair.

I told my young friend he was not being fair to himself, that people in leadership positions are allowed to make mistakes and while he felt badly, what was needed was the proper action to correct or handle the mistake. Focusing on telling a group who they lead how they had let everyone down and how poor their judgment was, can damage the confidence of others in them as their leader. Sure, it’s fine to apologize but it is important to do so from a position of confidence and self-respect and to move on to the actions of correcting the mistake.

Recently a small group of us from Lakeside had the privilege of having Dr. Bruce Perry join us for part of our book discussion focusing on the book he and Oprah recently published called What Happened to You? My young friend is a member of the group. In chat he shared with me how Dr. Perry’s description of the importance of mistakes was helping him gain confidence in the fact that making mistakes is often part of a journey of learning and growing. That confidence was replacing those feelings he had of guilt and shame for making the mistake of hiring the wrong person.

Mistake or success symbol. Wooden blocks with words A mistake is success in your progress. Beautiful grey background, copy space. Business, mistake or success concept.

Dr. Perry said the way we all learn is through our mistakes. He described how a young child learns how to stack blocks and may fail hundreds of times before finally being successful. There was nothing bad or wrong about all the mistakes the child needed to make before finally achieving the goal. Dr. Perry observed that our professional schools don’t like us to make mistakes and so we learn that mistakes are bad, are unacceptable, show weakness and ineptitude. “We have narrowed our developmental tolerance for failure,” he stated.

Dr. Perry’s messages resonated with my friend and helped guide him when he shared his news with his organization. He did so calmly and with confidence and the group fully accepted his decision without hesitation. He told me he learned a lot from the whole experience about both leadership and the importance of making mistakes.

I think it can be helpful for all of us to take a lesson from Dr. Perry about the mistakes that are inevitable in our lives. Rather than seeing them as bad, unnecessary or an indication of our weaknesses, we can see them as important, necessary and the way we will learn and grow so we can advance to a new level of knowledge or skill.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. When you think about recent mistakes you have made, does this information help you reframe any self-criticisms? Can you understand mistakes are normal and potentially will lead you to new growth and discovery?
  2. How might this new awareness help you in the future as you process and work on something new?
  3. Are there others in your life with whom you could share this information so that they too can see mistakes differently?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute