Life learning 1010: Dealing with failure, mistakes and being kind to yourself


None of us like to make mistakes. I get that. I also get that a lot of people are able to put their errors in perspective.

Mistakes happen. This too shall pass. Let it go. All are very nice sentiments. I will often say these things to my six-year-old nephew. I’ll give him a hug or a pat on the head. Heck, I’ll even tell him that when he does something intentional, without realizing the consequences, like cutting holes in his favorite shirt in craft class at school just to see what happened. (He cried for a day and tried to cover the missing piece of cloth from his chest, by the way.)

I wish I could treat myself with the same kid’s gloves as I do him, or that my mind defaulted to the “brush it off, it’s not the end of the world” mentality. Instead, I grind on myself. Yesterday, for example, I made a typo in a very public facing message at work. It was during a developing situation. I was crafting a smart phone notification and my coworker was standing next to me, as I wrote, trying to help me create as concise a message as possible. In the heat of the situation I forgot a cardinal rule for myself, proof read one more time before hitting send. I’m neurotic enough, but in a breaking news situation I’ve come to realize having someone over my shoulder, giving extra advice can add to distraction and error on my part. I either need to set boundaries during those times, such as let me do my work and then I will let you proof or tweak before I hit send, or practice not being nervous. The underlying problem I have in that situation is the sense that I am being judged, which creates nervousness that leads to mistakes. I am not being judged, I need to remind myself, This is called working collaboratively.

Strangely enough, I love copy editors. The act of having someone go over my work, after I am finished and in a non-breaking news situation, to improve my writing is sort of orgasmic. OK, it’s not that great, but I do get a thrill that someone is paying attention and showing me how I might improve my craft. In the modern world of online journalism though, that process is often lacking.

If you can’t tell, I’ve been thinking about this error a lot. I own the mistake, but I squirm under its weight, or more specifically, under the judgement of that mistake I put myself under. That co-worker who was helping me didn’t see the typo either until I pointed it out, and when I showed it to him he winced as well. He’s more of a perfectionist than I am. He asked if I blamed him for the error. I said no. He moved on. Occasionally, throughout the rest of the day he looked over at me and just said, “Stop it.” He knew. We also know that some people above us are not very forgiving about any type of error and that I might receive a lecture in the near future about being more careful.

I sigh deeply. No lecture is going to drill the idea of being more careful into my head than the punishing thoughts I continue to put myself through. The idea that I fucked up bleeds into the idea that I am a fuck up after a while. Letting go of my own shortcomings or errors and moving on is not a character strength of mine.

This is funny, because this morning as I woke up to do a few things before work the typo was still on my mind as I sat down with a cup of coffee and fired up this guided meditation program I have on my smart phone. Today’s mindfulness focus was on kindness, particularly being kind to oneself, remembering the feeling of someone doing something nice for me. As a sometimes cynic that sounds kind of silly as I read it in my head. But that was the lesson. I kind of realized I am nicer to other people than to myself. Rather than telling myself these things happen, I’m OK, and now let’s look at how we might prevent this mistake the next time, because there is always a next time, I just get stuck where I am, in a moment that I have no control over. The ledger of small things I use to judge myself against in my mind grows and my self-esteem shrinks further.

Buck up. Move on.

It’s funny, as an aside I have to mention that sitting and writing I realize I’ve compartmentalized this mentality in one area of my life already.

It involves my running. I reached a point last fall where I fell short of marathon time goals again and again. I seemed to be growing a bit heavier and slower each season, even though I tried so hard to improve. I carried each disheartening goal time failure onto the next course until I reached a point that I no longer cared about improving. My mentality during my last marathon was, I’ve done all the work I can. I’m tired of worrying about not having the grit to finish the run strong missing a clock time. I decided at the start, I’m going to stick at this comfortable pace and go forward.

No matter what happens, no big deal.

Without thinking about what I’ve done in the past, or projecting some sort of impossible aspirations on the road ahead, I just ran. I stayed in the moment. I was pretty nice to myself and those around me. I embraced the pain. and when I realized I was close to reaching my goal near the end of the 26.2 mile course and my legs were starting to really hurt, I asked for help. Four years after setting a particular marathon goal, I met it. It felt satisfying. No ticker-tape parade mind you, but fulfilling and real and in proportion to the rest of life and the accomplishments of others.

I signed up for fall training immediately afterward and have another race in Columbus, Ohio this Sunday. I’m mildly hopeful I can repeat the success. If it’s not met though, there will always be another race.

Just like today at work will be another day.

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One thought on “Life learning 1010: Dealing with failure, mistakes and being kind to yourself

  1. One method to lessen the guilt of making mistakes that I found to work with me is thinking that I can’t take the mistake back, I can’t go back in time, worrying about it won’t solve anything. I must take that blow and move on. Also, I try to think of something else when that memory comes back. Usually, I escape into music or movies, or browsing tumblr. Maybe this helps you too.

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