My Favorite: Mistakes

For most of my childhood, my dad was an avid Aikidoist. I would sometimes go to the dojo with him, and watched as he and other grown ups would roll themselves into incredibly agile little balls and roll in a circle around the room as part of their warm up. It always looked fun to me, but when my parents tried to encourage me to take classes with the other kids, I balked.

Even at the tender age of 7, I was afraid of being bad at something. I had already figured out that I was “bad at gym class” and that I wasn’t good at tumbling, gymnastics, etc. Taking classes at the dojo felt like it was just going to be more of the same gym class stuff that I was already trying to avoid with timely visits to the nurse.

George Bernard Shaw
I dig this quote. (Public domain image. Text added by me.)

This fear of being bad at stuff continued for years, reaching its zenith in my first years as a lawyer. My first job out of law school was at one of the largest law firms in the world, and somehow, I ended up working mostly for one of the most dreaded partners in my department. I spent many a late night going back and forth between her office and mine, re-editing simple cover letters ten times over until she was happy with it.

Working for her shook my self-esteem to the core. I would read agreements and letters over and over again looking for mistakes, but inevitably I would miss something and she would take me to task. I was so afraid of making mistakes that the stress led me to make more mistakes. I later found out that other associates who had worked for her had needed extensive therapy, some choosing to leave the law altogether only a year or so into it. After about two years, she left the law altogether, and thankfully, I was able to begin the work of improving my self esteem and rebuilding relationships with other people at the firm who respected my work.

"Do not fear mistakes.  There are none." Quote from Miles Davis.
I love this quote. (Image by Tom Palumbo from wikipedia. Text added by me.)

Even so, I was in a pretty dark place emotionally when I leafed through a Learning Annex brochure that included a talk by Albert Ellis. I signed up for the talk, and while not all of it resonated with me, Dr. Ellis had a line that has been with me ever since. During the talk, he had us say, again and again, “I’m a fucked up, fallible, human being, just like everyone else!” Saying that a number of times with a group of 50 people or so whom you just met is incredibly freeing. I remembered, that I’m human, and humans make mistakes. In fact, they make lots of mistakes, and my occasionally, arguably misplaced commas were pretty meaningless on the scale of human mistakes.

Since then, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the whole idea of mistakes. I’ve realized that mistakes are a sign that I’m actually doing something. I’m trying something. I’m stretching beyond my comfort zone. Mistakes are often a sign that I’m taking action on my dreams. Mistakes show me that maybe I need to do more research, or ask more questions, or get more people involved or just make more mistakes until I get it right. Or maybe the mistake was the right way to do things in the first place.

Essentially, I’m a firm believer in mistakes. Looking back, what mistakes have you made that you were glad you made?

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10 replies on “My Favorite: Mistakes”

I hate to admit how bad I am at letting myself make mistakes- or letting myself be okay with those mistakes. Especially now that I’m halfway through my phd, I feel like I “should” probably be in a position where I know what the hell I’m doing, right? nope. And in my head I know there’s no reason for me to be perfect, both my advisors are regularly making mistakes, but somehow the theory and the practice never, ever match up. Sure, sometimes it means that I’ve made myself go above and beyond what might otherwise have been expected, but then I’m the better phd for it. This is of course not to say that I don’t make mistakes. Oooooh the mistake I’ve made. Personal, school, sometimes the way that personal and school get mashed together. But that doesn’t keep me from beating myself up about it afterwards.

Ugh, even hearing myself say/write this I know this is something I really need to work on before it does some serious damage.

I think most of us PhD students have to do that whole “fake it till you make it” shit. I’m not that far into mine, but I’ve felt similarly to you. Especially when you’ve got a couple colleagues who insist on trying to make themselves out to be the smartest people in the room.

Love that you used Miles Davis!  I used to have a band teacher who would say, all the time, “Good enough for jazz.”  Because in jazz you can make all kinds of mistakes and it will still sound like music.  So now when I screw up, I think the same thing.  “Oh well. Good enough for jazz.”

Without doubt, going back to a certain relationship. I was so immured in thinking that I loved him that I couldn’t properly feel my way out. But you know, I have zero regrets about it, there are no what-ifs at all, and it gave me a huge amount of empathy for people in heartbreak and who are making what seem to everyone else to be bad choices.

I moved away from home for the first time, to a city where I knew no one, to start grad school 4.5 months after I was diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis. Since this is a post about mistakes, I’m sure you can guess that it was a spectacular failure! I had to move back after only a few weeks. I was in so much pain, and I had encountered a lot of poor attitudes towards my arthritis at the school. It was a bad experience, and I can see now what a mistake it was to push forward with such a big change before I had my health problems sorted out.

But it was also a good experience for me. The grad program I was supposed to attend had been a practical decision (Library and Information Science) since by the end of my undergrad I had ended up loving my minor and disliking my major. And I didn’t know what to do about that. After I returned home, I immediately enrolled in a few extra classes in the subject of my minor and started planning how I could turn that into something. It went much better, and now I will be starting a masters in that subject this fall (with funding!) at the same school where I took those extra classes. And this time I know I will be able to do it because I will have a support system and I have already been doing it for the past 8 months.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, and I can’t say that I am happy with everything that has happened, because it has been rough getting to this point. But things have worked out, and I really think that’s because I realized that I had made a mistake, and tried to learn what I could do differently to make things work. It’s scary to make such a huge mistake, but it’s also a bit freeing. And since I’ve made such a huge mistake and still managed to turn it into something good, I feel better able to handle the smaller mistakes that will happen in the future.

To err is human (or so I’ve been told).

For me, the word mistake just brings forth a wave of guilt and shame.   I associate it with work…and making a mistake with a patient is so so so so awful.  It’s the worse feeling in the world (okay I’m being dramatic, but it’s bad).

But making mistakes at work has taught me a couple of things.  One, it has taught me that’s not always my fault.  There’s a reason hospitals look at mistakes as a systemic problem rather than an individual problem.  Usually there is a process somewhere that can be improved.  And secondly, it has taught me the importance of owning up to my mistakes.  There is no room for getting defensive when someone’s health and well-being is on the line.  This has also transferred in my everyday life.  I have no qualms admitting when I have done something wrong.  Mistakes seem to be fixed quicker when you acknowledge them.

But yeah,  there are definitely no work mistakes that I’m happy about making (other than the fact that I will never do it again).  As for general life mistakes….hmmmm,  I’m kind of a roll with the punches kind of girl so it’s hard to pin point anything right now.


Being able to accept or admit to making a mistake without getting defensive is such an important thing. It’s something I still struggle with a lot, so I really admire that you can do that. I also think it makes you a really good healthcare professional, since I know there are some people in health care who will never admit to a mistake, and it can cause problems.

It’s probably an artifact of my youth that I’m not completely sure how to answer this; I’ve had a lot less life-experience to really appreciate which mistakes panned out well for me!

There’s a couple things that were probably mistakes I’m glad I did. One was trying to get an Asian Studies minor at my undergraduate university, despite the fact that I needed to have at least intermediate proficiency (meaning: having completed intermediate classes) in either Chinese or Japanese. This equaled about two years of study. I only had one year left of my degree. So, in order to try to get it, I decided to study abroad over the summer in China.

When I got there, I realized quickly I wasn’t going to get enough learning in the language to be able to take Intermediate Chinese I and have a good chance of doing well without losing my mind. But it was a truly amazing experience that I wouldn’t give up for anything!

My biggest mistake and one I’m so glad I made was trying to write a masters thesis on Pindar in New Zealand. I did the coursework part of the degree over there which is a separate degree but the second year was just the thesis. All my bad time management and bad research habits came to get me along with the fact that I truly am a generalist. I love Pindar, his poetry is fascinating and beautiful and complex, but I just couldn’t spend an entire year just writing about him. I tried to find a job while there but that fell through and so fell deeply into a fantastic online community that gave my days structure and balance. It was just I feared going to see my advisor, an incredible and supportive woman because I never had enough for her and felt like a failure. It took me coming home after a year of not doing enough and getting a bill from Vic to realize, I’m not going to finish this thesis, it doesn’t matter where I am. I’d always finished what I started before even if it was hard but I couldn’t do this. It hurt like hell to do that and I cried a lot but that year after I started looking for jobs and thinking about what I really wanted.


Now I have a masters in information science and know I want to be a librarian and I know what I want because of how I failed. Though it took me a while to get over my fear of word counts as that was the daily fear of the thesis, not having enough written. Yet now, I’m writing fanfic and blog posts and feel like I have my path again, now I just need a job.

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