Today, a talented young woman was found dead. The commentary has already begun and the judgments have been pronounced even at this early stage. It seems that even when a person’s mistakes have led to their own demise, we are intent on criticizing people for the things they do wrong, no matter how many things they have done right. This young woman achieved incredible success at a very early age. She was a wonderful singer-songwriter. Her voice and her lyrics showed maturity beyond her tender years. I’m one of thousands of people who enjoyed her music and got a lot of pleasure out of it. And still, people deride her for some of her weaknesses and write off her achievements because of her shortcomings.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about learning, innovation and creativity as part of some new projects I will be taking on at work. All of these things, including a new assignment working with social media, involve taking risks. I also watched a wonderful video on Ted.com featuring economics writer Tim Harford called, “Trial, error and the God complex.”
Harford talks about the complexity of the world we live in and how, in order to evolve, we must embrace trial and error in order to be successful. He cites examples of how this method of learning has led to tremendous progress. He also talks about the opposite of this, which is what has been called, “the God complex.” This is the belief that “no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.” This attitude is the antithesis to learning and improving.
Now, I’m not talking about mistakes of the kind where other people are harmed. This is not about the justice system or how we hold people to account for crimes. Clearly, there are terrible decisions that people take that have to be dealt with severely. This is a plea to reconsider blunders that are of a more innocuous nature—things we all do in our lives, or in our work that were off the mark, where we misjudged, misstepped or simply messed up. Why can’t we be a lot more understanding of these lapses in judgment, recognizing them for what they are, a chance to correct our course and bring us closer to success?
As I filled out the umpteenth profile about myself for one of the many social media sites that have surfaced in the last few months, I stopped to ponder one of the questions. There was a field for “bragging rights.” An interesting way to list your accomplishments, but it got me thinking. I was really tempted to list some of the things I’ve survived along with the usual list of degrees, my children who turned out well despite the divorce and the ex-husband who definitely tested my strength and character. Think of how revealing that would be. In addition to the usual information about hobbies, music preferences and religious beliefs, imagine how much you could learn about a person if it were okay to ask and talk comfortably about the things we’ve all screwed up in our lives.
What a radical idea—admitting without fear of reprisal or derision about your mistakes as freely as we talk about our accomplishments. Can we ever get to this point?
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson wrote a book called, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” that details the absolute reluctance of people to admit their own errors.
“Self-justification, the hardwired mechanism that blinds us to the possibility that we were wrong, has benefits: It lets us sleep at night and keeps us from torturing ourselves with regrets. But it can also block our ability to see our faults and errors. It legitimizes prejudice and corruption, distorts memory, and generates anger and rifts.”
I certainly have been reflecting on my mistakes lately. I’m sure I’m not the only person going through a divorce who spends a lot of energy reliving the past and trying to understand what went wrong. The trick, though, is to think about your mistakes in a constructive way. It’s easy to fall into an endlessly self-destructive contemplation of your own stupidity, without analyzing the root cause of your errors and coming up with ways to chart a better course the next time.
The ability to embrace those who make mistakes, instead of ridiculing and ostracizing them could make a major difference in our own ability to grow and mature as a society. The most amazing steps forward involve taking risks. People won’t be comfortable with taking risks, until they are comfortable with making mistakes. I’ve met people so paralyzed by the fear of screwing up that they literally could not do their job. There is something so wrong about this phenomenon that I can’t stop thinking about it.
Today’s news about Amy Winehouse and the resulting attitude toward her death hit me particularly hard. It’s disturbing that we continually search for that charismatic authority figure to worship and emulate. We flock to royalty and want them to be flawless (they’re not). We comment endlessly on celebrity mistakes, dissect them publicly for our own amusement and pass judgment with glee and delight. It’s cruel and destructive.
We need a lot more humility and a lot less humiliation.
Think of what we could do if we explored our mistakes thoughtfully and purposefully. Imagine how many advances we could make if we examined our weaknesses with compassion and used the information to strengthen and excel. But before we do that, we must be comfortable with the idea of our own frailty. We’re not there yet. We insist on omnipotence to our own detriment.
The day that our personality profiles online allow us space to list our failures with dignity to an appreciative audience, is a day that I look forward to. I’m starting by admitting that my list includes: a failed marriage, some bad financial decisions, at least one job that I should never have accepted and several missteps over the course of my 20 year career in communications and public relations. Maybe I’ll write a book about some of the most dreadful career mistakes and call it, “Mistakes were made, and yes, by me!”
(Also, check out my Google+ profile. I’ve just updated my “bragging rights.”)