To Err is Human

Do you get smarter from your failures? A friend of mine flips out and overreacts when she makes a mistake.  Maybe you do that, too.  OR maybe you freeze and don’t do anything, so you cannot fail. 

Fear of Failure?

I live in a fear-of-failure culture: Switzerland.  It is hard for people around me to make, admit and accept failures.  But we DO make failures, after all, we are human.

Another friend has a problem because he made a mistake at work, and now he’s being cut off from his leadership.

I heard a wonderful talk on making (and learning from) mistakes by Dr. Theo Wehner of the ETH in Zürich a while ago and it has made me consider making mistakes again. 

Perception is everything

It really depends on how we look at things- SO our perception of the failure is key- 

Thomas Edison said this of his some 9,000 mistakes before making a light bulb:  “I know several thousand things that won’t work!” thus, he kept learning—and kept trying. Look what happened to him!

To err is human

Weall make mistakes of several kinds under two main categories, deliberate and inadvertent:

Deliberate (non-compliance): routine, situational and exceptional

Inadvertent(error): in Action (slip or lapse) and Thinking (rule or knowledge-based)


We need to reflect on the mistakes to learn from them

The question is why we made the mistakes.  We must reflect upon them and learn from them. If we stuff our feelings about them or deny those mistakes, we cannot learn from them. Part of supervision is to do just this, by the way.

So, what should we do when we mess up? 

·     We first need to get curious about those mistakes

·     Then we need to (perhaps) be coached or supervised regarding our mistakes

·     Of course, we need to deal with our emotions about the mistakes we make

·     Foremost, we need to create working and living cultures where mistakes are okay and we can thus learn from them

Maybe starting from the last sentence would be best. I said that I live in a fear-of-failure culture.  We have to begin there and remember that that very aspect of making mistakes and feeling something (like remorse) is what makes us human.  It is also the first step to learning something, in most cases.

Think in Group Think

Perhaps our overly individual culture is part of the problem.  Centuries ago we would have thought much more in a communal fashion, so much so that an individual could not have “failed” and a family or community would have failed together.  If we took more responsibility for each others’ mistakes, we might learn more readily from all our mistakes.

Feel the Pain, and stay with it

We need to admit the emotions we feel when we fail and reflect on them, work through them, and not ignore them or pretend they are not there.  We need to let ourselves feel that pain.

Maybe we need coaching or supervision

Perhaps a neutral party can help you work through the mistake and learn from it.  When someone from outside of “the problem” comes along and helps you see the issue for what it is, it becomes smaller and more easily solved or – when completed – not something you need to repeat.  After all, that is one of the big goals: to learn so as not to make the same mistake over and over again.  Reflection is very important for this process and a coach/supervisor can help with that.

No denial, instead- be curious

But most of all, we need to become much more curious.

In this case, curiosity will allow you to get on with life and work, to learn and move on.  When we start to take a serious look at our mistakes, we can learn from them and not fall into the trap of repeating the mistakes again.

Patricia Jehle