Why mistakes are good

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Do you usually try to hide your mistakes? Or have you had the opportunity to learn why mistakes are good?

I’ll never forget a mistake I made early in my career as a journalist. 

I was 24 years old and running a community newspaper. A civic election was coming up, and I had the bright idea to distribute a detailed questionnaire to all 57 (!) candidates running for the 10 spots on city council. Then, I prepared a summary of their responses, which I ran alongside each of their photos and party affiliations. 

Having to make 10 choices out of a ballot featuring 57 names was a daunting process for most voters, but I knew my feature would offer them a valuable service. And I wanted to communicate what I had done on the front page of the newspaper, in an arresting way.

Brainstorm! I designed the front page so that it looked exactly like the ballot. No photos (when the front page of the newspaper was typically filled with them.) Just a mock ballot — with the complete list of the names that citizens would actually get to vote for.

Too bad I didn’t ask anyone to proofread it.

Somehow, during typesetting, the list had doubled-up on itself and instead of showing 57 distinct names, it showed some names twice and other names not at all. (Fortunately, the material inside the newspaper was all fine.) 

I was embarrassed and devastated when this error-ridden graphic was delivered to the 40,000 homes in our distribution area. And although everyone assured me it didn’t have a negative impact on my great idea, it’s a mistake I still regret, many decades later. 

Still, the process also underlined for me why mistakes are good. They teach us so much more than our successes. 

Here are some of the many benefits of mistakes: They strengthen us; they help us focus on what matters; they concentrate our attention; they help us understand better; they make us more creative; they bring us closer to others by allowing us to make amends, and they help us learn and grow. 

Wild success does almost none of these things. 

From the election newspaper brouhaha, I learned a lifetime lesson about the absolute importance of proofreading. Now, I never let text slip my grasp, hoping for the best. (Here’s a link to my post on how to become a better proof-reader.) Since that day, I have always proofread carefully. Note: even this care is not enough to guarantee perfection. Two other people also check this column and, from time to time, mistakes still slip through. This is no one’s fault. It’s just continuing proof that none of us is perfect. 

The world likes people with intellectual humility — a set of skills and characteristics that include being sincere, honest, thoughtful and curious. In fact, it much prefers people with intellectual humility to the insufferable know-it-alls who don’t understand why mistakes are good. 

To get the most value out of your own mistakes, here are some points to keep in mind: 

  • Know that everyone is fallible. You are not the first person in the world to make mistakes, nor will you be the last. It’s part of the human condition. True, some people (perfectionists) will expect you to get everything right all the time but they are wrong. They make mistakes too, even if they don’t know it. (And if this perfectionist is your boss, you probably think a little less of them on account of their perfectionism, don’t you?)
  • Understand the value in admitting your mistakes. You’ll increase your credibility when you admit to your mistakes instead of trying to cover them up or sidestep responsibility. If someone calls you out on a mistake, the smartest thing you can do is agree — with vigor. You can say something like, “I’m so mad at myself that I’ve made this stupid error and I just don’t know what to do about it.” Suddenly, the other person will be the one trying to calm you down.
  • Ask plenty of questions. Most people want to pull the wool over their own eyes when they’ve made a mistake. They know they’ve done something wrong, perhaps something stupid, and their own embarrassment gets in the way of learning a valuable lesson from their mistake. Don’t let that happen to you. When you’ve screwed up, talk to other people about it. Do a debrief. Figure out what you need to do differently so the same mistake doesn’t happen again.
  • Be empathetic. It’s possible — even likely — that your mistake has hurt another person. Be respectful and understanding when you speak to them about it. Try to see the situation from their perspective rather than just your own. Empathy will make you humble because it’s based on the assumption that yours isn’t the only point of view.
  • Figure out how the mistake can help you grow. This is perhaps the biggest value of embracing your mistakes. They can help you learn and do better the next time.

All of these steps will help you simultaneously increase your confidence and your humility, which is a neat trick — and the single best way I know to make yourself a better writer.


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Has anything ever helped convince you that mistakes are good? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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