“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
James Joyce wrote that, in reference to Shakespeare. Maybe it’s true when it comes to geniuses; who knows? But the rest of us make plenty of mistakes—and not intentionally, either. We make mistakes because we’re human.
We make mistakes because of knowing too little; we make mistakes because of imagining we know more than we do.
We make mistakes when we neglect the importance of a moment; we make mistakes when we think only of the moment.
We make mistakes when we become impatient; equally, we make mistakes when we are indecisive. There are foolish acts; there are foolish failures to act.
We make mistakes out of boldness; we make mistakes out of timidity. We make mistakes when we are overly ambitious and when we are not ambitious enough.
We make mistakes when we let our actions become detached from our values.
Just as mistakes come from many causes, they come in all shapes and sizes. There are tiny gaffes that embarrass us for a moment or two; there are major blunders that fill us with chagrin and remorse for years or even decades. But whatever their origin and whatever their scale, there is one thing that all our errors have in common: They are opportunities to learn.
They are portals of discovery—not only for geniuses, but for the rest of us as well.
When we come up with a wrong answer to one of life’s innumerable questions, we are at least one step closer to a right answer—or at least the answer that’s right for us. When we let ourselves down by inattention or lack of conviction, the twinge we feel is a healthy reminder to maintain our standards and our vigilance. When we goof, and confront the consequences of our goofing, we have the opportunity to figure out what doesn’t work, and why.
In short, we grow by messing up.
I stress this because I’ve observed that, especially in difficult or uncertain times, many people seem terribly afraid of making mistakes—as if a mistake were a personal humiliation from which one would never recover, the dreaded “blackmark” on the permanent record.
But that’s just not how it is. Mistakes are very seldom permanent; most of them can be fixed with less difficulty and drama than one imagines, and there’s nothing shameful about making them. There is, however, something sad and limiting about the fear of making them.
If we let ourselves be controlled by the fear of stumbling, we can walk only the widest, most-trod paths. If we refuse to cut ourselves some slack for messing up, then we’ll be disinclined to take chances; and if we don’t take chances, we may never find our passion or our truest selves. If we’re afraid that the beat of our own drummer might lead us to a misstep, then we can only march along with everybody else.
And you know what? Even if we play it as safe as we possibly can, we’ll make mistakes anyway! Everybody does. Mistakes are inevitable. They’re part of life.
If life is what we make it, and if we want our lives to be vivid and authentic, then we have to accept the fact that we will mess up now and then along the way. We can’t eliminate errors, so we may as well embrace them. Admit them when they happen, forgive ourselves for making them, and most of all, learn from them.
No mistake should go to waste!