Why we need to stop hiding mistakes

Why we need to stop hiding mistakes February 2, 2015

Girl and her dog

I used to think mistakes are an embarrassing part of the human experience, even though they were inevitable. But the more I meditate on how the world works and, more to the point, how I’d like the world to work, the more I’m coming to the view that mistakes are more than inevitable; they’re vital.

We live in a world where it is increasingly socially impossible to make a mistake, and I think it’s a recipe for for a timid, boring, and unrelatable world. Without being willing to make a mistake, attempting to connect with other people becomes unlikely and forming meaningful relationships almost impossible.

Brené Brown’s research, which she discusses in a popular Tedtalk, better illustrates my point than I can. She talks about a natural divide that emerged in her research on the subject of vulnerability between people who have a strong sense of worthiness (and love and belonging) and those who really struggle to feel worthy. After crunching more data, she found that what was common among those in the first group was the courage to be imperfect and embraced vulnerability.

I bring up vulnerability, not as someone in the camp who embraces it, but as one of the ones who has struggled with and feared vulnerability her whole life. I do not easily share of myself. Though over the years I have made tremendous strides in my willingness to make mistakes, especially in newly forming relationships, I remain generally skittish and afraid that I will say the wrong thing and scare the person away. I am sure, though, that I have lost more relationships from not saying anything than from saying the wrong thing.

Embracing vulnerability might be one of the scariest things we can do, but it has the potential to be the catalyst for the some of the most important relationships we form. Perhaps because my fear of vulnerability and making mistakes is too scary in my personal life, I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how to encourage it in my interbelief work, where the likelihood of mistakes is higher. Interbelief work involves spanning across sometimes wide differences, and the beliefs at the core of our identity can offend the core of the people we meet. This makes mistakes, and allowing for the mistakes, more important.

But once we make mistakes, we know where they are, and progress is faster when we don’t just learn from our own mistakes, but from everyone’s. However, that will never happen unless we create a society and culture that accepts that mistakes will happen, and that’s a good thing.

We still need to own and apologize for our mistakes, but we don’t need to vilify every single mistake that happens. We can’t be afraid to make mistakes, and we need to figure out a way to encourage them. A scientist friend of mine recently lamented that scientists don’t publish the results of failed experiments, partly because of pride and reputation, but also because this is a culture where we are not allowed to fail. An unconfirmed hypothesis, in the current climate, puts their reputation on the line, but researches are wasting time repeating and repeating failed experiments they could have avoided if they’d been telling each other about the failures. Knowing what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does. That is as true for particle physics as it is for interbelief relationship building.


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