Following up on our previous article about how avoiding mistakes is getting you nowhere. Here are four of the most common and destructive “skills” that we have learned for handling those times when we make mistakes. These are the key reactions that stop the learning process:
1. Pretending We Did Not Make A Mistake
The last U.S. President I recall accepting full responsibility for his actions was President John F. Kennedy for his part in the Bay of Pigs incident. Since then there have been such classic statements as “I am not a crook” (Nixon during Watergate) and “I don’t remember” (Reagan during the Iran-Contra hearings). These men’s avoidance of any responsibility has kept the issues alive and smoldering – as jokes, if nothing else.
It has been shown through other examples that the public demonstrates understanding and compassion for people who commit errors and then acknowledge responsibility for their actions. This seems odd in a world where we are taught to avoid making mistakes.
Yet, it seems that each of us continues to be responsive to the wisdom that still lies buried deep within us that, as the poet says, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” Perhaps there is something in the act of forgiveness that makes us remember how we are meant to learn.
Comedian-actor Richard Pryor, after making the “mistake” of free-basing and badly burning his face and upper body, went on national television to come clean about drug use. TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart admitted to visiting “women of the red-light districts.” As a result, both their careers continued and their “wrongs” were put behind them. I cannot say whether they truly learned from their mistakes, but at least they didn’t pretend they were not responsible.
2. Blaming Something Or Someone Else For The “Mistake”
Immediately after the failure of my business in 1979, I blamed my two partners for the money loss. I was very stubborn, refusing to look at the role I had played in my downfall. I continued to dig in my heels and deny my own part in it for two years. I was angry, hurt and broke.
It was not until I calmed down that I realized the experience was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. I am not saying I would want to lose everything again, but I am grateful for the valuable lesson. Had I not lost my money in 1979, I am certain I would have lost it later because of my ignorance. There is the saying that “A fool and his money are soon parted.” My mistake allowed me to better understand how I had been a fool, and how to avoid making similar mistakes again.
I know many people who are not successful because they are still consciously or subconsciously blaming other people for things that happened to them. I hear many horror stories about money or romance and how someone “did them wrong.” The problem with that point of view is that the source of the mistake continues to lie dormant, just waiting to come to the surface again.
One example of this is found with people who divorce and then marry a “different-same” person again and again, because they didn’t learn the lesson from the previous marriage. They continue to blame the previous spouse for the failure of their relationship. Had I continued to blame my partners for what I did not know, I am certain I would have made the same mistake again and again, with different partners, until I either got the lesson, gave up, or died broke, frustrated, and bitter.
American society has become “blame-happy,” and the term “victim” has become a part of everyday conversation. Courts are jammed up with lawsuits brought on by “victims” wanting compensation for being “wronged.” No one can deny that there are legitimate claims, but we also know that the practice of suing has gone to extremes. Doctors have become fearful of delegating any of their duties to other clinicians with whom they work for fear of malpractice suits. This single factor has caused an increase in medical costs and a decrease in insurance benefits.
Similarly, the highest single cost of producing a car in North America is not steel, but insurance. Insurance of all kinds is a hidden cost of every car produced—for a commodity that benefits the consumer in no way.
We could do with fewer victims and with more people willing to learn instead of wanting to blame.
3. Rationalizing The “Mistake” Instead Of Learning From It
(Also known as the “Sour Grapes Syndrome.”) “Oh, well, I really didn’t want that anyway.” The world is filled with people who are always ready with perfect rationalizations about why they are unsuccessful. For a short time after I lost my business, I used the rationalization that I failed because I didn’t have an MBA. By clinging to this rationalization I only prolonged my mental poverty and slowed down my comeback.
One of the most prevalent justifications today is, “Oh, the money doesn’t matter to me.” I often hear it from people who are not winning at the game of financial well-being. Does money really not matter?
Let’s ask the question another way: is it a mistake to put yourself and your family in the position of not having enough money? At the very least, not having enough money should be interpreted as a “tap on the shoulder,” a signal to change something in our lives.
4. Punishing Oneself
Possibly the most destructive behavior of all is the emotional torment people inflict on themselves as retribution for making a mistake.
When asked who is hardest on them, most people will point to themselves. They often do this with an apparent sense of pride and humility. And yet, punishment is one of the most destructive aspects of human behavior there is, whether it is self-inflicted or inflicted by a third party.
One reason people are not successful is that they are consciously or subconsciously punishing themselves for something they did in the past. They cannot allow themselves to be successful because deep down inside they do not feel they deserve it. They are punishing themselves by withholding the opportunity to enjoy a successful life.
Truly successful people learn to take full responsibility for their actions; they apologize and do whatever is appropriate to correct their errors. They acknowledge the mistake, seek the lesson, make whatever corrections are required and then move on to become more successful.
Unsuccessful people harbor the emotional pain of self-blame and fail to get the valuable lessons made available to them through their mistakes. Not acknowledging mistakes makes for narrow-minded, self-righteous people who ultimately hinder their own ability to be happy and find financial success.
It will look like this: The Four Most Common Reactions to Making a Mistake