Turning Mistakes into Motivators

Article submitted by Amy Sargent.

I don’t know anyone who enjoys making mistakes.

Perfectionists or not, when we mess up, we feel bad. Embarrassment, self-loathing, and shame often accompany mishaps, emotions strong enough to tackle the strongest of us. “Are you really this dumb?!” or “Seriously, you did that again?!”, we ask our inward self, and our inward self often answers with self-defeating agreement. In fact, the feelings we associate with making mistakes can wield enough negative power to prevent most of us from ever trying again.

Think back on the last time you missed. Do you get positive, “warm fuzzies” when you reflect upon it? Is it something you are proud to share with others? I’m guessing not. We usually want to hide or attempt to cover up our errors, and sometimes choose negative behaviors such as lying or passing the blame to do so, neither of which benefits us in the long run. Responding this way gets in the way of success, not only our own but for others. It’s no wonder we avoid mess ups like the plague.

Having a bias for action is a competency of emotional intelligence. It’s that ability to create and seize opportunities, not allowing a fear of mistakes prevent you from missing out. Rather than waiting for good things to come your way, or procrastinating, it’s having the inclination to act before you have to, to foresee necessary changes and take steps toward new endeavors. One aspect of taking initiative is being persistent. Persistence is the quality of “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.” [https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/persistent]

“If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll wait forever.” ― Will Rogers

Many successful people have made mistakes at one time or another, and had the choice of quitting, or, exercising persistence to motivate them toward success. Consider for a moment the story of the confectioner, Milton Hersey.

His last name should give it away. We know him as the founder of the company that produces those delicious chocolate bars wrapped in foil and brown paper, the Hershey Chocolate Company. At an early age, Milton discovered the value of persistence, despite mistakes and perceived failures, a trait which would later contribute to his success.

At fourteen years of age, Milton dropped out of school and was working as an apprentice at a print shop in his home town. But he was let go for accidentally dropping his hat into one of the machines! After taking another job at a nearby candy factory, and subsequently losing it, he decided to step out on his own and open his own candy store. The business failed. For the next 15 years–yes, 15 years!–, Milton moved from city to city, job to job, searching for success, but not finding it. When he ended up in New York City, he decided to sell candies as a street vendor, which proved to be unsuccessful as well. Just when most of us would have quit, feeling the painful pangs of failure, Milton moved back to his hometown, where an old employee, Henry Lebkicher, offered him lodging and gave him a loan to ship his candy-making equipment from the city.

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” ― Richard Branson

Milton began to experiment with his own chocolate recipes, using condensed milk which was readily available from the dairy cows on the farm. It wasn’t until 1893, when Milton was 36 years old — over 20 years after he dropped that hat — he created the Lancaster Caramel Company. Seven years after its birth, he sold the company for one million dollars, and in 1900, established the Hershey Chocolate Company, which today still stands as one of the most famous (and best-tasting) brands of chocolate on the planet. [https://www.wanderlustworker.com/48-famous-failures-who-will-inspire-you-to-achieve/]

Now that’s some perseverance! I am very glad he didn’t quit (she says, as she bites into a mouthwatering chocolate bar).

One thing we can learn from this story is that mistakes don’t have to lead to failure. They can, instead, propel us forward. As we develop a mindset of persistence, we can begin to look at errors as stumbling blocks from which we can learn. And as we figure out how to clear these hurdles, we will begin to develop the grit it takes to bring about success.

“Your limits are YOUR limits” ― Daren Martin

Remember the fable about the old donkey who was no longer wanted by his master? The disgruntled owner dug a deep pit, threw the poor donkey in, and began filling in the hole. But with each shovelful of dirt intended to bury him, the ingenuous donkey tamped down the dirt and stepped up, building his own staircase, until he could step right out of that dark place.

Taking initiative despite mistakes takes some effort. If you struggle with this, you may find you procrastinate on things you need to be doing, then feel bad about falling behind schedule. You may be resistant to work that falls outside your ‘required duties’, and give up easily. You may find you are always in ‘crisis mode’, reacting instead of being proactive and reaping the benefits of planning ahead. You may find you postpone decisions due to being overly-cautious and afraid to take risks.

Want to learn how to tamp down the dirt that comes your way and step up and out past your mistakes? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Feel the feels.  If you messed up, it’s OK to feel bad for a while. It’s normal, and shows you are human and possess empathy. Instead of tuning out those feelings, use them as a valuable source of information as to what’s going on inside of you. Notice the emotions you feel, and name them. Acknowledge them and connect them to their source, listening to what they are trying to tell you.
  • Reflect. Looking back on the error, determine which parts (if any) actually went well and which went south. What can you learn from these? What will you repeat next time, and what will you choose not to repeat?
  • Listen to your narrative and sleuth out the truth. Are you retelling the story of your mistake based upon untruths? Challenge yourself to lay down a negative bias and run through the facts — not your perceptions — of the situation. This is a good time to remove any assumptions you have made about what others are thinking of you. If you’re struggling with this, ask trusted friends or colleagues — those who want to help you grow — who know the situation for their perspective.
  • Adopt a positive mindset. No matter how poorly you may feel about the mishap, remember that you have the choice to behave differently next time. Replace your negative, self-defeating thoughts with positive affirmations. Instead of, “I can’t ____”, figure out what you can do. Instead of “I always ___”, try saying, “I can change by ____”. Your words matter. Speak words which breathe positivity, hope, and success.
  • Stop victiming out. OK, so you messed up. We all have. If you find yourself playing the role of the victim, not only is it going to stunt your own growth, but you’ll drive everyone else around you crazy as well. Instead, visualize yourself as victor. Again, you have the choice to change. Spend some time dreaming about what would it look like if you chose not to repeat the poor behavior. What are some ways you could do it differently next time? Describe what it would feel like to succeed. Take a moment to journal about this or talk to a trusted friend.
  • Apologize then move on. You can’t keep beating yourself up for a past mistake–it only causes you and others to relive the pain over and over. Figure out who your mistake(s) hurt, and how, then go to them and do your best to apologize. Don’t expect them to become your new best friend or immediately forgive you. They may not be ready to let it go, but offering a sincere apology will help you let it go.
  • Start snacking every day.  The change needed to move on from a mistake may seem overwhelming or daunting. Remember that small bites of large tasks are much easier to chew. Figure out one small thing you can to today to get started, and take small steps forward from there, every day. As Henry Ford once said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” Start now.
  • Find your superhero.  Who do you know who has made a mistake, yet bounced back with vigor and resiliency? Find successful people and talk with them, ask them questions about how they overcame their past to move past mishaps.

If you have a beating heart and breathe in and out each day, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s part of being human. As a result, you may find yourself in what seems to be a deep, dark pit. No need to stay there. Learn to tamp down the dirt and step up. Pick up your hat, and move on. Allow your errors motivate you toward better choices next time, becoming someone who is known for his/her persistence.

“Dreams don’t work unless you take action. The surest way to make your dreams come true is to live them.” ― Roy T. Bennett

2 Responses to “Turning Mistakes into Motivators”

  • Brenda Hill:

    This is a great article, Amy. I tend to operate in fire drill mode and beat myself up over inevitable mistakes (sometimes my fault and sometimes completely out of my hands). They haunt me and give me anxiety attacks long after everyone else has let it go.

    I currently have a project at work that WILL NOT GO AWAY. It keeps evolving and coming back and keeps getting assigned to me! Your article has perfect timing as I dig back into the project from you-know-where. I gotta pick up my hat!