“Learn from your mistakes.” It’s an important adage and a timeless lesson. It is in fact a lesson within a lesson: Mistakes are the most important part of learning. Only by attempting and failing do we make the knowledge part of us, create the neural pathways that allow us to improve and expand.
I’m going to talk about two kinds of mistakes: The first are those we commit “intentionally”—or rather, in the course of attempting to do, create, or become something. These are the sort that the “learn from your mistakes” adage primarily mean, such as, practicing a sport, becoming a surgeon, or learning to juggle.
The second kind, and where I’ll spend most of our time today, are mistakes of intention. These are the cheating spouses, substance addicts, company embezzlers, trouble with the law, saying something hurtful to someone you love. These are the mistakes that are most transformative and also the hardest to find a place in your heart to love.
When we really screw up, particularly in ways that cause the people we care about or respect to look down on us or shun our company, it can be debilitating to accept the lessons we need to and grow from them—potentially with those people whom we loved or admired no longer in our lives. This is not a knock against them: They are taking whatever actions are necessary for their own paths and their own health. That’s their right. This exercise is not to judge them for their choices, and in fact, attempting to do so would only impede our own growth and progression.
How much compassion you have for yourself depends a lot on what you think of yourself. In the best case, you have a healthy self-image, self-love, an accurate accounting of your traits and capabilities, and also possess that quality of humility even while acknowledging that which makes you unique and awesome. For too many of us, we are altogether too good at identifying our worst traits—sometimes even attributing imaginary ones that we don’t actually possess—and then we minimize, dismiss, or ignore our positive traits. We’re afraid: Afraid of having to live up to greatness; afraid of appearing prideful or narcissistic; afraid of the light of honest goodness. After too much time spent in darkness, the sunlight is painful and blinding.
Here’s the hardest lesson of my life:
Love Your Mistakes
Not just the little ones, like dropping balls while learning to juggle. You need to love the big ones, too, like when you hurt someone you love so much that they divest themselves of you in their life.
Don’t excuse the mistake; don’t justify it; don’t validate it. Big mistakes have consequences, and you must bear those. Some tough love? One of those consequences is embracing what you did and loving it. Love it like it’s your own child who messed up big time. You incurred a debt when you made that choice, took that action, or neglected something you shouldn’t have. Your repayment of that debt starts by accepting that it is a part of you, like a scar or a bump of healed bone, and only by loving every part of yourself can you move as a whole person.
Because only by moving as a whole, imperfect, flawed—even scarred—person can you make the fullest effort to put right what you made wrong in the world. If you leave that part of yourself out—ignore it, regret it, hate it—then you are crippling your growth, your healing, and your ability to best give back.
There is no atonement through pain, only through improvement. Through becoming the sort of person you yourself could respect, envy, and emulate. Confession, self-flagellation, penance, all make us feel “better” by accepting and dwelling in pain and guilt.
I’ll say it again, punishment is not atonement. To atone, improve. You make it better by making yourself better. You fucked up, and when I say, “Own it,” I mean own it! Not like an armchair but like your own arm.
Don’t confuse “owning” your mistakes and accepting your culpability with wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing, keeping you from becoming something and someone who can be a better contributor to the world and the people you love. You add more to the world as a happy, fulfilled, generous person than as a dark dweller in pain and self hate. Holding onto the pain and the shame gives us a perverse pleasure or sense of justice, since we are spending time in a living purgatory to assuage our guilt—for as long as we can bear it. “The longer the better.” In our perverse masochism, we see our suffering as a virtue, and any happiness, any positive actions, any growth as a betrayal or injustice, as though it somehow means that we’ve escaped “enough” punishment. As though the Universe seeks our pain as a balance against the pain of the mistakes we caused in a time that no longer exists.
Do not forget, but do not dwell. Learn. Grow. Move. Act. Become something more than you were.
As important as this is, I feel compelled to say: It cannot absolve you from paying the external debts that you’ve incurred, whether it be rebuilding things you broke, paying back money, accepting the dissolution of a relationship or friendship, or, for some things, doing time in incarceration. Loving your mistakes and accepting that they are part of you is in addition to, not instead of.
If you are religious, pray. If you’re spiritual or secular, meditate. Journal, contemplate, talk to someone you can trust. Work through the guilt and acknowledge that every moment of our past becomes a piece of our self, and only as a whole “self” can we move forward effectively. A little kid walking forward while looking backward over their shoulder, is likely to run into something they can’t see. When you leave parts of yourself behind you—which include your bad decisions—then you, too, are a kid walking into a door jam while watching the room they’re leaving.
There’s pretty important difference between the two types of mistakes: You want to make as many of the first sort as is practical, while making as few of the second as possible. Just because you need to love the weighty mistakes in order to grow as a mature person doesn’t mean that you want to take on any more of that debt that can be avoided.
As for the rest: Go forth, attempt, mistake. And remember: Love even the balls that drop.