Why Mistakes Can Be Great – Even Real Whoppers

I had a perfectly good explanation. But I had NO EXCUSE. Professionals don’t show up late when they’re presenting – sufficiently late that the program had to be rearranged. I’d hurried in, plugged in my deck and was ready to go in 30 seconds, but the train had left the station. They’d inserted a new exercise. There was little for me to do but to stew in my soggy, rancid shame.

Man, was that delay a penance! Deserved? Yes. Painful? In the domain of psychic pain . . . excruciating. The sponsor had coolly moved the group on, and I took the cool judgment like piercing icicles. I was physically ready to present, but could I psychically let myself up off the mat of judgment? The mantra was at the ready for me: Accept, Adjust, Advance. Yet I was emotionally flooded, concussed.

A colleague in the room, seeing no doubt my glazed look said, “The group can use the time. No worries, Dan.” I appreciated the kindness. But my heart was racing, nonetheless.

Gratefully, a few minutes later, I got to emerge from limbo and begin, my talk on Values Embodied. Often in authority, we have a quick choice to make: move forward seamlessly, or acknowledge that something’s gone wrong — in this case that I had messed up. Choice one often makes sense. The audience or staff, the citizens or congregants may not care about what happened backstage, or inside baseball.

In this case, I had to apologize. The irony that had not escaped me was that my talk was on how values are embodied — that is, actions really mean so much more than the words we utter. So, how could I talk about core values — like integrity, excellence, and respect — when my actions had be-lied them? I began my talk by admitting my mistake, asking for forgiveness and a second-chance, and promised my best. It was an exceptional object-lesson, as if I’d proven the law of gravity by absent-mindedly walking off a 100th story construction site while a stop-watch ticked off my 32.2 feet/second per second drop.

I got a second lesson that evening, when I told two of my kids about dad’s bonehead move. “It’s been a long, long time,” I said, “since I have felt so stupid and so afraid of people’s judgment” (my sponsors, the audience, and surely my own). I felt like a little kid. They said, welcome to our world; we worry often about our mistakes and others’ judgments. What a lesson this was turning out to be!  Do my students, staff, coachees and clients sometimes feel this way? How painful. How numbing. Do they feel the strong urges I felt to protect my ego, identity and reputation?  To throw somebody else under the bus, to stretch my explanation into an excuse that might elicit mercy and understanding, or to say as the young folks say, “it’s all good.” It wasn’t. The less-than-best-self within me was saying, “integrity sucks!”  I sure appreciate much better how hard it is when people are continually fighting against the blame of others and their own self-reproach.

I’m neither tearing myself down. Nor am I bragging. I’m just trying to do my best, which I believe is to hold in place, simultaneously, the unvarnished reality and my cherished values. I can hear from — but can’t be swayed by — ego.

This sure has given me a renewed sense of compassion for others who struggle with their own mistakes. I hope I can help them to work their way through it and lead with their

Best Self!

  • To err is human, to admit our errors is humbling. I hate making mistakes, and I know that I grow every time I admit to them. Thanks for sharing, Dan.

  • Dan, such a human thing, this shaming of ourselves. I like that you seemed to have been able to turn it into a point of humility for your audience. We’ve all experienced it. I like to say it’s okay to hear that little voice in my head (the voice of shame, ego, or just general “beating ourselves up”), but I can choose not to listen to it. Thanks for a great post.

  • Quite possibly your best post ever Dan. Wow, talk about resonance with recent material I’ve been listening to. Sometimes truly our ‘best self’ is our ‘vulnerable, mistake making self’. Not sure if you are familiar with Dr Brene Brown’s work but I encourage you and your readers to check it. Her research is all over what you have just shared happened for you.

    From your feelings of being ‘that little boy’ again to all the emotions you, and all of us, have felt in those moments of shame. I love your vulnerability in what you’ve shared. See what you think of Brene’s work – she is a wonderful speaker and I think a much needed advocate for the human spirit that we need in our world today lest we consume each other with the desire for perfect leaders, great, huge achievement based, yet false self worth aspirations and failing to ‘show up’ in life to all those around us who need us to. She did a TED talk that went global, for good reason: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Qm9cGRub0

    I have recently been going through a recording of her on Audible called “The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage.” It is truly powerful.

    Warmest regards and thank you for your sharing,

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