“What do you first do when you learn to swim? You make mistakes, do you not? And what happens? You make other mistakes, and when you have made all the mistakes you possibly can without drowning – and some of them many times over – what do you find? That you can swim? Well – life is just the same as learning to swim! Do not be afraid of making mistakes, for there is no other way of learning how to live!” – Alfred Adler
“To err is to be human”, I believe that is the quote from Alexander Pope and it couldn’t be more true. As humans you and I are built with design flaws, albeit we are still evolving and making progress both physically, mentally, and spiritually but still, the process is slow and we’re lagging behind.
One reason for this is the world is in constant motion, always making progress, change, and learning from its mistakes and things in motion tend to stay in motion right?
Well, as humans we happen to be good at, and enjoy stopping which is one reason we’re having a hard time keeping up with all the changes. A couple of reasons we’re lagging behind.
- Our skulls are to small: Our brains are growing too fast that our skulls actually can’t keep up. Our noodles have nowhere to go and are actually folding in on themselves.
- We consume more than we need: Food, media, information, drugs, natural resources, you name it we consume it and the philosophy of more is always better seems to make a lot of sense to us, especially if “that more” doesn’t cost us a thing. However, our ability to give back is pitiful, we struggle severely at replacing what we take or contributing at a rate that makes up for the rate at which we consume. No better example than the obesity problem in our society, we consume too much terrible food and fail to use it for its proper purpose which is fuel.
- We take way to long to mature: Hell, I’m 32 years old now and I’m pretty sure I’m still trying to mature. We are the only species on earth that takes this much time to nurture our young. Look at other animals and living creatures, it almost seems like a few short moments after birth they are left to fend on their own and figure things out based on experience. We’re lucky, or maybe not so lucky, in that we’re coddled for what seems like the majority of our lives.
- We suck at paying attention: I like to think that I can handle everything that is thrown at me. I like to believe I am a master multi-tasker and often bite off more than I can chew… (see we consume more than we need above). But as humans do best at zeroing in on the things we find the most interesting or the things right in front of our face.
Because we’re trying so hard it leads to struggling so much to keep up and we often make mistakes and one of the biggest mistakes we make consistently is trying so damn hard not to make them. However, the best way to avoid them is to understand why you make them in the first place.
Why you make mistakes
We’re biased and we just can’t help it. One of the reasons that most of us make mistakes is due to cognitive dissonance. We hold on to particular beliefs so strongly that when facts contradict that belief we tend to try to bend reality to fit our perception. Some examples below.
- Knowing that smoking is harmful, while liking to smoke.
- Believing that lying is bad, being forced to lie.
- Liking a friend, while knowing that he hates your brother.
In the case of the first example you know that smoking is harmful based on facts but you continue to smoke. In order to justify your actions you provide examples of older people who still smoke and appear relatively healthy.
Another great example of this and maybe one that is a little more relatable is “The Fox and the grapes” story.
A fox is strolling around the woods and notices some high hanging grapes that he desires and wishes to eat. Unfortunately he is unable to reach them as they are just past is outstretched arms. Because he can not reach them he decides that the grapes are not worth eating anyhow and are probably sour grapes. There is a pattern that is followed here:
you desire something – find it unattainable – to reduce its dissonance you then criticize it.
We use this reasoning to help minimize regret. Like after you place a bet on a basketball game your confidence in your decision is heightened mostly because you can not change your mind now, you’re already committed. It is also used to justify behaviors like cheating on a test, students will judge cheating less harshly after being induced to cheat on a test (1)
If something changes unexpected or dramatically we expect to notice it. Take out a piece of paper and a pencil and watch the video below. I’d like you to count how many times the people wearing the white shirts and white shirts ONLY pass the ball back and forth to each other.
WATCH THE VIDEO BEFORE READING ON. (refresh your browser if it does not show right away)
Now I am betting one of two things just happened. Either you have no idea how many times the people in the white shirts passed the ball back and forth between each other or you completely missed the gorilla that walked through the middle of the video.
We trust our eyes way to much. Most of us think that seeing is believing but our eyes are not cameras and often miss some of the most important things we should see. Our eyes are constantly darting in and out, moving and stopping, trying as hard as they can to process everything that is going on around us. Unfortunately this is an impossible task for them and as they overcompensate for trying to notice everything they can miss the most important things.
We are subconsciously biased and quick to judge by appearance. Most of us like to believe that we don’t have any prejudices or hidden biases, and I am definitely one of those people – that was until I took this test from the fine people over at Harvard. Turns out I am a horrible person! Ok, maybe not a horrible person but it really helped to open my eyes as to how exactly my predisposition’s might affect the decisions that I make.
Often when placed under pressure, competitions, or stress these biases can emerge and affect decision-making. Assumptions are made based on these prejudices and facts and likely outcomes are often ignored.
We Notice on a Need-to-Know Basis. You may not have to wear glasses or contacts and you might have 20/20 vision but that doesn’t mean you are not susceptible to “change blindness.” Change blindness occurs when you fail to recognize major changes in scenes or events that you are viewing. This usually occurs during some sort of visual disruption and can even occur during a simple blink.
In an experiment conducted by Daniel Simons and Daniel Levin (our gorilla guys) at Cornell University they had strangers at a college campus ask pedestrians for directions. As the strangers and pedestrians discussed the directions, they were to be interrupted by two gentlemen carrying a large door. These two men would walk directly between them and the interruption would only last a moment. During that brief interruption one of the men carrying the door trades places with the stranger asking for directions. When the door is gone, the pedestrian is face to face with a different person – but the conversation does not stop. It carries on as if nothing strange occurred. The question now is would the pedestrian notice if they were now talking to someone new or not?
In most cases, it turns out, the answer was no. (See video below) (refresh your browser if it does not show right away)
We hold mental biases to maintain the status quo. Many of the decisions we make everyday are based on maintaining the status quo which unfortunately can lead us to making many mistakes. Going with the “know” is safe and secure and as we’ve talked together before on this site it is imbedded in us as human beings to seek safety and comfort… we just can’t help it.
It’s one reason you might take the same route to work everyday even tho there is a faster alternative, the familiarity of the route makes you feel safe and the uncertainty and chance of maybe getting lost taking the new route creates anxiety and to many questions. This is one reason many of us do the same workouts over and over again and eat the same diet even though it’s not producing the results you desire.
Our environment shapes what we see. “…The details we do notice depend, to a degree, on how we define ourselves. In the door experiment, for instance, Simons and Levin found that the seven pedestrians who did notice the change had something in common: they were all students of roughly the same age as the “stranger” they encountered. In one sense, this finding wasn’t surprising. Social psychologists have shown that we often treat members of our own social group differently from how we treat members of other groups. Black people encountering white people (or vice versa) may behave differently than when they encounter someone of their own group; ditto for rich people encountering poor people, old versus young, and men versus women. Nonetheless, wondered Simons and Levin, would those differences in the way we behave toward others extend to the way we see others?
One of the pedestrians who had failed to detect the change when the door was brought through said as much when she was told of the experiment and interviewed afterward. She said she had seen only a “construction worker” and had not really noticed the individual; that is, she had quickly categorized him as a construction worker and hadn’t noted those details–like his hair or his eyes or his smile–that would allow her to see him as an individual. Instead, she had formed a representation of the category–a stereotype. In the process, she traded the visual details of the scene for a more abstract understanding of its meaning; she had skimmed….” adapted from dailyom
Where to go from here
Joesph T. Hallinan in his book Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average runs through a host of mistakes we make routinely from overpaying for a gym membership to realizing personal biases you might not originally thought you even held. Hallinan goes into more detail about why we make mistakes and classifies some examples as:
- We look but we don’t truly see
- We search for meaning
- We’re always wearing rose-colored glasses
- We’re a bunch of skimmers
- We connect the dots
- We think we’re above average
- We’re constantly in the wrong frame of mind
But probably the most important topic Hallinan discusses is that we think what we perceive is actually there but often our brains actually fill in what we don’t see which tends to lead to many of the mistake that we make. Hallinan also acknowledges that some of the mistakes we make are beyond our control, however having the ability to recognize the ones you can control will result in more:
Author and speaker Scott Berkun breaks down mistakes into 4 distinct categories that make understanding these little trouble makers easier to understand and to learn from.
- Stupid: Absurdly dumb things that just happen. Stubbing your toe, dropping your pizza on your neighbor’s fat cat or poking yourself in the eye with a banana.
- Simple: Mistakes that are avoidable but your sequence of decisions made inevitable. Having the power go out in the middle of your party because you forgot to pay the rent, or running out of beer at said party because you didn’t anticipate the number of guests.
- Involved: Mistakes that are understood but require effort to prevent. Regularly arriving late to work/friends, eating fast food for lunch every day, or going bankrupt at your start-up company because of your complete ignorance of basic accounting.
- Complex: Mistakes that have complicated causes and no obvious way to avoid next time. Examples include making tough decisions that have bad results, relationships that fail, or other unpleasant or unsatisfying outcomes to important things.
The key process to overcoming any mistake is to first avoid blaming others and secondly to avoid blaming yourself. The instant you start to place blame you start to push acceptance away and when acceptance distances itself from you it will be nearly impossible to learn from your mistakes, and that is the goal – to learn from any and all mistakes. So no more blaming capiche? Only understanding.
Change the way you think about mistakes. As kids we’re often taught that mistakes are bad, you may have gotten yelled at, grounded, benched (in sports), hit, laughed at, or ridiculed and embarrassed when ever you made a mistake. Hell, in school when you make a mistake you are sent to the principles office or your grades are effected. Essentially we’re taught to feel ashamed or guilty when we make mistakes.
It’s important to remember that the bigger your dreams and ambitions, the tougher the challenges you take on, and the bigger risks that you take the probability you will make mistakes goes up. There will be setbacks but when they occur it is not the time to turtle, it’s time to step up. What will you do next?
To make the most of your mistakes start making them more interesting. Mistakes are way more fun when you’re doing things that really push your limits and get you outside of your box. Trying new things and taking on personal challenges will help you build confidence and get you comfortable with making mistakes.
Avoid attachment. You are not your mistakes. Mistake are simply an event that occurred in your life. An opportunity to expand on who you currently are and who you want to be. I repeat, you are not your mistakes.
Big mistakes usually follow tiny ones. Break those big mistakes down and look for smaller events, decisions, assumptions, prejudices, people, or common themes in previous mistakes that may have led to this much larger one.
What should you do next time. Often we don’t ask this question enough. What behaviors, attitudes, or reactions can you make next time that will lead to a different outcome?
They really aren’t that bad. Remember that window you broke with your brother playing baseball outback, or how you were so late to your first day on the job, or even that F you got on an algebra test back in the day. They probably don’t matter a ton right now do they?
Hindsight is always 20/20
Time and time again it often feels like the outcomes, decisions, and mistakes in our lives should have been expected or known. It’s easy to look back at events and how they played out and to assume that we should have seen “it” coming. I think it’s safe to say that most of us are constantly trying to make sense out of this world and to predict or anticipate our futures.
Instead of looking back and saying to ourselves “I should have seen that coming” or “I knew it all along” why not just admit that we had no idea what was coming and embrace the opportunity we have been given to learn a little bit more about being human. So here’s my challenge to you…
Start screwing up more!
I’m serious. Ask that girl out and get reject, grab a surf board and get tossed around a bit in the ocean, embarrass yourself on the dance floor, pierce some ears on the karaoke stage. Lets start experiencing as much as we can and running with the good and learning from the mistakes.
What do you plan to screw up today I want to know.
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