Finding the Gift in the Mistake

Wiring for Resilience by Finding the Gift in the Mistake

Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.
– Carl G. Jung

Resilience is based on learning new, more adaptive ways of coping. Researchers have found that one of the best tools for recovering resilience now is to learn from mistakes in the past. The wisdom of Mullah Nasruddin’s saying “Good judgment is based on experience; experience is based on bad judgment” can be a comfort when we’re faced with yet another AFGO (another fricking growth opportunity) or fear of one.

Our brain rewires from the experience of making a mistake. When our choices turn out to be problematic for ourselves or others, we can learn from them by asking, “What did I not see? What could I have done differently? What can I do differently now?” As the neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says, “We turn a regrettable moment into a teachable moment.” We can learn to find the gift in the mistake in the form of a belief that “I am learning; I am coping.”

Yes, risk-taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure thing-taking.
-Tim McMahon

It helps to debrief after a mistake by talking it over with other people. Different perspectives help us discover the gift in the mistake and reduce our agony or self-condemnation over it. When we’re having to deal with consequences that we would never wish on ourselves or anyone else, we can find some equanimity in knowing we are strengthening our capacities to cope. We may not wish to have to become so bravely, tenaciously adaptive in our lives, but we can rejoice that we are.

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.
-John Wooden

Exercise: Wiring for Resilience by Finding the Gift in the Mistake

  1. Ask a small (safe!) group of friends to come together to “look for the gift in the mistake.”
    1. Each person shares common mistakes first, the sort of mistakes that anyone might make: getting distracted and running a red light; accidentally deleting all the emails confirming travel reservations; forgetting to enroll in a health insurance plan by the deadline and now having to appeal. Find some comfort (not judgment) in the universal imperfections of being human.
    2. Expand your sharing to include mistakes that had bigger external consequences-putting off going to the doctor until “just a cough” landed you in the hospital with pneumonia for a week-or internal consequences-the guilt you feel because that hospitalization caused you to miss your daughter’s graduation from college.
  2. Let the compassionate reflection of others in the group, as well as your own, allow each person to “own” their mistake, discern what lesson could be learned from it, and find the gift in it, according to the following narrative:This is what happened;
    This is what I did to survive;
    This has been the cost;
    This is what I have learned;
    This is how I can respond to life now.
  3. Even if the gift is simply a deeper intention to pay closer attention as we careen through our days, or to be kinder to ourselves in our imperfect humanity, we have found the gift.

The Neuroscience of Finding the Gift in the Mistake

One of the major functions of the prefrontal cortex is to integrate the many messages and stories we tell about ourselves and our behaviors-who we are, how we got to be here, what we’re proud of, what we regret-into one coherent narrative. We have to come to terms with the whole shebang in order to rest easy in our window of tolerance. Reframing our mistakes as learning not only helps us learn-preparing us to cope more skillfully and resiliently the next time-but also helps us relax into the self-acceptance that contributes to our equanimity, enabling us to keep calm and carry on.

Success is not final; failure is not fatal. Success is moving from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm. It is the courage to continue that counts.
-Winston Churchill