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Whoops… how to turn mistakes into lessons learned.

My high school algebra teacher loved to say, “only God does math in pen” every time she caught one of us using a pen in her class. That wise saying, said probably weekly during that year in my teens, stayed locked away in my brain for decades until this morning, when I was doing some math lessons with my 7 year old son. He wrote his “9” backwards, as seven-year-olds do after a summer of not writing many numbers. I gently pointed it out and was rewarded with the grumbling frustration of a boy that hates making mistakes. Poor guy inherited perfectionism from his mama, but I heard that voice of my algebra in my ear and passed the wisdom along: “It’s ok, buddy! That’s why people do math in pencil, so we can make mistakes and try again. Only God does math in pen.” And he smiled, erased, and tried again.

I think about perfectionism a LOT. My son struggles with regular frustration that he can’t do every single thing he wishes to do with perfect execution the first time, every time. I sympathize, because I was exactly the same way. In a lot of ways, I still am. The wisdom I’ve come across over decades of mistake-making is that failing forward isn’t automatic. In order to grow and gain from your failures, you have to learn from them. There was a time when I thought this “learning” was an obvious after-effect of all mistakes. Automatic; effortless. No need to pause and reflect, just try again. Sometimes that works, but I’ve learned that the pause-and-reflect step is a critical one. 

Failing forward isn’t automatic.
It’s been basically a year since I decided to hire someone to help me “fix” an issue with my first website. I didn’t want to delegate, but I’d decided I’d gotten to a point where I couldn’t get it done on my own, and went looking for someone to help me. I started with a person I didn’t know, without really asking for references or looking at her previous work, or asking hard questions. I liked her, so I hired her. Period. Looking back, with that hinds’ height 20/20 vision, I expect neither of us would do it again. As sweet as she was, and as hard as she worked, we were both out of our element with some of the software, and the project went over the expected delivery by two months. At one point, I lamented to my husband that I had spent hundreds of hours, countless late nights, and quite a bit of money on a website we would replace in less than a year. He responded, “Maybe that’s the cost of an education.”
 
My response was something slightly more colorful than “Well, crap.” (Which, incidentally, was my original title for this blog post). However, in a calmer place, I saw the wisdom in what he said. Being a small business owner, learning as I go, this is what education looks like. Sure, I went to college and got a degree that barely helps me (bachelors in psychology, anyone?), but where does the bulk of the knowledge that I use to be the business owner I am today? Experiences, good, bad, ugly. Trial and error. Failures I learned from.
 
Have you stopped to reflect on where your education has gotten you? I don’t necessarily mean the one with a degree or diploma that you paid for with tuition dollars and late nights cramming for exams. What have you learned, that you use in your business every day, that you’ve picked up along the way? What’s the last big mistake you made, and what did you glean from it? Are there any mistakes you’ve made that you’ve never stopped to reflect on or learn from at all, and what treasure trove of lessons are left there for you to uncover? I firmly believe that every mistake has a lesson to teach, if we can only find it. And finding the lesson of the mistake makes the mistake worthwhile. A mistake is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.
 
Finding the lesson of the mistake makes the mistake worthwhile. A mistake is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.
 
Let me go one step further… do you have someone in your life that you reflect on mistakes with? Someone that calls you out when you don’t seem to see the “duh” of a repeated mistake. Someone that says, “Is it reasonable that you should expect to be perfect?” and offers you grace when you refuse to give it to yourself. If you don’t have someone like that, you should find someone. A coach, an accountability partner, a friend that is capable of being both tough and gentle. Someone that can say, “I know it must be hard to be in this situation. It sucks and I sympathize. Let’s talk about how we can do things differently next time.”

I’m a firm believer that we can learn from others’ mistakes, too. Our mistakes, and the lessons we glean from them, are of value to others! When you don’t want to look at the mistake you’ve made for your own growth and benefit, can you learn from it for those you care about? What wisdom will you gain that you can give to your children, or your team? Just be careful not to share more about your woes and misfortunes (because we know how fun–yet completely unproductive–that can be!) than the wisdom you gleaned from it.

And lastly, give yourself grace. I can look back on things I did early on in my business and cringe. But dwelling on the mistake with shame does you no good. Laugh about it! You can laugh about the way you styled your hair in the 80s or the time you thought a road trip with kids couldn’t be that bad. Our mistakes aren’t final. They are nothing more than stepping stones to the next mistake. Only God does math in pen. Erase and try again.

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