“Mistakes are the portals of discovery” – James Joyce
It may not be confession time but I will say it anyway. I spent the better part of the four decades on this planet in a human body being addicted to berating myself for not being perfect. Maybe I was getting advanced training in ‘how not to treat yourself’ or I was just a slow learner. Regardless, I got it in the end. One day, it dawned on me that being intolerant of one’s mistakes and focusing on them in exclusion of the positives is no more than self-abuse. That was not how I wanted to relate to myself anymore.
A few days after this firm decision, I was talking to a friend of mine about the idea of wanting to be powerful enough to give myself the freedom to make mistakes. It seemed like such a high goal. Insightfully, he asked, “Who did you promise that you would be perfect? God?” Ha! I laughed. We went onto another topic but that comment popped in my head while I was cooking dinner, about four hours after the conversation was over.
I used my cooking time meditatively and brewed on the undocumented agreement I must have made to be perfect. Who would I have made that promise to? If I had not made that promise to anyone including ‘God’, why is it so hard to accept and forgive my mistakes? At this point, I was still far away from the idea of celebrating my mistakes as proof of my ability to sink my teeth fully into life. Taking my friend’s question and running with it, I developed a three-step process that frees me from the fear of making a mistake or helps me forgive a mistake I made. In essence, this little system prevents me from choking the joy out of myself with my own hands. I feel free to make mistakes. I never thought I would say that. I hope that these simple steps I share will help you reach that freedom as well.
1. See your mistakes as creative attempts to satisfy your curiosity for life
Essentially, mistakes are our continuously improving attempts to taste life in different ways. We are here to experiment, try, taste, smell, fall, get up and dance, grow and play. When we become adults, we rinse and repeat these experiences but we do it in different ways. Instead of messing up the living room before the guests arrive, we mess up relationships. And we learn from those mistakes. Life goes on.
Think about how exciting it is for a toddler to practice walking no matter how many times he falls before he can learn to walk on his own without help. The anticipation of the joy of walking beats the fear of the pain or the embarrassment a thousand times. Plus, the toddler has no stories about failure in its memory yet. The parents accept that falling is a part of learning to walk and do not berate the kid about it. So the child learns to walk in joy, by falling and getting up with a determination and a smile. There is something to be learned from that process.
2. Review the agreement you made with the Universe
The truth is, if I was to never make mistakes, I would have to try nothing new or promise not to grow as a person. I can’t do either. How fun is life without trying new things and growing? I don’t remember signing an agreement with the Universe that says, “I vow to be good at everything and do everything perfectly”. It’s funny how we live as if we have. Every time I make a mistake and catch myself taking my own self-love away, I remind myself of this truth. I re-affirm that ‘I have not signed an agreement that I will never make mistakes’. It is true and I derive power from this truth.
3. Turn your mistakes into stories of wisdom and fun
You can build connections and even create a more fulfilling social life by sharing wisdom through personal stories. This isn’t about making conversations all about us but experimenting with healthy vulnerability and having fun with your mistakes.
I have a very embarrassing story. I had told this to many people but never publicly like this. 18 years passed since then. I decided that it is time to turn it into a funny story from my past to reduce its shaming power over me. Here’s the story:
I got fired from my first job with my own hand. I was 22 years old. Getting an opportunity to freely play with office equipment for the first time (including the internet), I typed up a letter on the computer and decided to fax it to my friend’s private. I hit print several times but nothing happened. I hadn’t checked to see if it was turned on. Apparently, it wasn’t. In order to not ‘break anything’, I left it alone. When the work day was over, I packed my bag and left the office.
The next morning, a few minutes after I come in the office and go to get coffee, I get called into my boss’s office. He handed me the pink slip. This time the pink slip was the one-page letter I had written to my friend. Apparently, the boss’s personal secretary started the computers and the printer spit up 3 copies of the letter I wrote to my friend. I was complaining about the job and was telling my friend that even though it had been a few weeks, I still can’t get excited about it. As you might have guessed, the secretary had handed the letter to the boss. I guess she wanted to be the loyal employee that day. Or she had a thing for the boss and thought that I was a threat. I am not sure what her story was. Regardless, it wasn’t pretty. I was lucky enough to get a well-paying and challenging job approximately two weeks after that and didn’t tell anyone about how I got fired for years.
When I share it now, I get to experience intimacy in an unusual way. People actually laugh at my stupidity without me being offended by it. It speeds up the bonding and trusting process. And we all get a laugh at my expense. I learned that mistakes can be fun if you aim to grow through them.
Our perception of events and experiences in our lives is everything. We can be victims or we can be victors. We can make our mistakes part of the journey or we can torture ourselves for them. No one masters something without failing. Human life is an art form. Your life is a blank canvas that you get to paint on every day. If we are to be master artists of human life, we have to let our mistakes lead us to unexpected new truths and discoveries. Allow yourself to be human and enjoy making a mess on the canvas. It’s half the fun.