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Don't mistaken your mistakes

What is a mistake?

Which of the following do you think are mistakes?

  • When you are tyoing, you hit the "o" instead of the "p"? Is it a mistake if you did it and corrected it immediately or is it a mistake only if you don't notice until someone else points it out to you? 

  • When you eat that extra serving of fries when you know that doing that is not congruent with your stated intention to lose weight?

  • When you design a weight-loss program for yourself that focuses on exercise, instead of modifying your food intake, and after three months of rigorously following your program without any weight loss, you learn that one hour of moderately vigorous exercise only burns about 400 calories which was easily added back on when you ate one slice of pizza or two tablespoons of peanut butter?

  • When you just wanted to help your friend do the right thing, but when you gave her advice she felt you were trying to tell her how to live her life?

  • You got married and seven years later you got divorced.

  • You keep trying to stop procrastinating, but, no matter what you try, you find yourself doing it again.

  • You fell in love with someone who ended up cheating on you.

  • You got your heart broken once so you decide to never let that happen again.

  • You tailgated the car in front of you and you ended up ramming into the back of them.

  • You tailgated the car in front of you and things went fine.

  • You did your best to study for the exam and you still failed it.

  • You're a surgeon and you didn't follow the procedures but the patient turned out fine.

  • You're a surgeon and you didn't follow the procedures but the patient died for other reasons.

  • You're a surgeon and you didn't follow the procedures and the patient died because of that.

  • You're a surgeon and you followed the procedures and the patient died.

  • As you look back on your life you can see many things you would do differently if you had a chance to do thing over again.

Is "mistake" a useful idea?

I use the word "mistake" sometimes to indicate that I now see that if I want or had wanted to get result X, then doing Y either didn't get me X or ended up incurring more cost than getting X was worth.


The idea of a mistake can be a useful idea in learning how to get more of what we want (and avoiding what we don't want) in life.

How "mistake" can be a toxic idea

  • When we think we shouldn't have made the mistakes that we made.

  • When we think we should not make mistakes in the future.

  • When we think we could have done any differently than what we did given what we knew and were aware of at the time that we made the "mistake."

  • When we don't recognize the value of and necessity of taking the risks of making mistakes as an essential part of living a good life.

  • When we don't recognize the damage we can cause both for ourselves and for others when we try to insist on not making mistakes. Reducing mistakes in one way can increase the mistakes in another more important area. Consider, for example, free-range parenting in contrast to helicopter parenting.

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