Reality Check: The Benefit of Mistakes

“Oops! I made a mistake.”
Is there anyone out there who genuinely believes that they’ve never made a mistake? If that’s you, then I guess you can stop reading now. This column is for the rest of us—the mere mortals.
One of the great gifts of life is the freedom to make mistakes.
Yes, I perceive that freedom as a gift. Granted, it doesn’t always seem like a gift. If you’ve ever made a whopper, then you may have wished that something would have stepped in and stopped you. If only a person, a system, or even your own conscience had held you back. But no, it was not to be.
The idea that freedom to make mistakes is a gift becomes clearer when you consider the alternative. If we were not able to make mistakes, then that would mean that we are also completely sheltered; completely controlled. That might be safer, but how dull is that?
When we have freedom to choose, we have freedom to succeed. We also have freedom to fail. Is there a benefit to those failures? If so, what?
To be clear, I don’t pretend that every mistake offers a corresponding benefit. There may be folks who believe that good and bad balance out. Maybe that’s the case, maybe not. I’m looking at mistakes simply from the perspective of usefulness.
If you’ve ever taken a sharp curve a little too fast while driving in the rain, then you’ve had the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. The lesson is, “Don’t do that.” The most beneficial way that lesson could be delivered to you is through a slight loss of control, with no one else on the highway and no real danger. You get a wakeup call but suffer no tragic consequences.
Sadly, as you know, some driving mistakes are more devastating.
A mistake can prompt us to correct our path. And while it is tempting to shield the young and vulnerable from their mistakes, it’s also important to assess whether that shielding makes things better or worse for them. Is it more helpful to protect them from consequences? Or is it more useful, in the long run, to allow the mistake’s natural consequences to work through?
For example, in any kind of schooling, it’s tempting to place blame for lack of success. And the opportunity to blame is always there: The teacher is not good; the learning environment is not good; the book is no good; etc.
For the driving incident, we could blame the road, the tires, the car, etc.
We can always find something to blame. However, does assigning blame help the person who made the mistake? Is it more effective to look for the lesson in the mistake and use it to change behaviour?
Every mistake may not bring with it an opportunity to learn. However, many do, so if we remember to look for a possible lesson in our mistakes, it could help us maintain a helpful perspective. It could even reduce the probability of repeating the mistake or making a worse one.
When we are offered a lesson, even when it comes in the form of a mistake, it can be valuable to pay attention. How do you handle mistakes?

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