Good Mistakes, Bad Mistakes, No Mistakes

We all know we’re supposed to be OK with mistakes, that they happen.

And yet, if you’re like me, you hate mistakes. You hate making them. And, sometimes, you can’t help being frustrated when those around you make them as well.

Which, of course, is both right and wrong.

Some mistakes really are a problem.

Careless mistakes—a term I mean literally, a lack of care taken for something important—really must be avoided. The discipline of a professional requires us to do our work with care and attention. This is the promise we make to ourselves, to our colleagues, and to our customers, and it’s our job to honor it each and every day.

Repeated mistakes are also a problem. They mean we’re not learning.

But no mistakes…that’s not OK.

It’s our job is to move at a certain pace, with a certain sense of forward motion, and with a willingness to walk out on limbs we’ve never stepped out on before. If we are doing all these things, we will have to get some things wrong some of the time–either because we moved too fast, or because we are trying things that are truly new to us, things that we’re not yet good at specifically because they are new.

If this seems counterintuitive, think of it this way: if we are getting nothing wrong all the time, that has to mean that we’re either absurdly lucky or that we’re not moving fast enough, not moving forward quickly enough, and we’re not walking out on limbs in the way we’d like to think we are.

Viewed in this light, mistakes aren’t just “not a problem,” they are valuable. They are the data that tell us: look at that, we are moving fast enough, we are being brave, we are taking enough risk.

We might still reflectively dislike mistakes in the moment, but it’s our job to praise the right kind of mistakes, and to praise the mistake-maker (whether ourselves or someone else) for their courage and bravery.

They (or we) are moving in the right way, taking the right risks, walking out on enough limbs, and, naturally, sometimes mis-stepping.

That’s good news indeed.