What "Learning From Your Mistakes" Really Means

Whether from your mom, a Hannah Montana pop song or countless philosophers through time, you've probably heard the words: "Everybody makes mistakes." Accepting that people make mistakes, though, can be very different than accepting your own errors. 

Perhaps no college semester has taught me that lesson more clearly than this one. I've taken sleeping pills four hours too early, effectively drugging myself out of attending my bi-weekly night class. And last night, I spilled water on my less-than-one-month-old, very expensive laptop - at just the right angle to ensure immediate digital death. Sometimes I think I'm going crazy. In fact, maybe I already am! But if the tears and guilt have taught me anything, it's what "learning from your mistakes"really entails. 

casey the college celiac

Because, unlike the typical view of "not doing XYZ ever again," learning from your mistakes actually means...

...exploring what made it a "mistake" in the first place. 

Now, in the case of water bottle vs. computer, liquids and electricity obviously aren't best friends. However, as I was frantically fanning my laptop and cursing like my computer's life depended on it (if only!), I realized something. It wasn't even the thought of making my wallet bleed for the second month in a row that made me want to cry

It was my embarrassment at letting the stress of school, work and grad schools apps make me reckless around my new computer. It was my shame at feeling like I let my parents down by being so irresponsible. It was my anger at being - to put it simply - stupid, when I know I'm not. 

casey the college celiac
Dead computer 1, 2 and my new baby...
As much as these feelings hurt, though, they have a purpose. They remind me what I value in life, like my parents' approval and my ability to be a capable, smart human being. "Mistakes," as crazy as it may sound, don't exist on their own. The values that we - and our society, family and friends - hold create them. As a result, you can't learn from your mistakes without learning about your own values at the same time. 

...choosing responsibility over self punishment

What is one mistake that you made years ago, but still wince at remembering? Whether it was harsh words to a friend or accidentally killing the class goldfish, if you're like many people, you might want to engage in "self suffering" as a form of redemption. In fact, studies have shown that people often consider physical pain one way to reduce guilt and restore feelings of "moral righteousness." 

Self punishment doesn't have to be intentional or physical, either. If you're like me, it can strike in the form of anxiety, constant flashbacks, mental self criticism, and generally feeling like you're an all-around not so great guy. 

casey the college celiac
My sad self in the Apple store...
When you immediately jump to self punishment, though, you avoid accepting responsibility for your actions - and avoid learning from your mistake. Instead of berating yourself, make actions to fix the problem - like offering an apology to someone you've wronged or, in my case, paying for (another) new computer with my own money. You'll learn more by being your own "corrector" than you ever would as your own "punisher." 

...realizing that you are more than any single act or error. 

As you're deciding the best actions to correct your mistake, learning from your mistake also involves correcting your mindset. Last night, all I kept saying was, "I'm so stupid." And perhaps if my whole life was summed up in that one moment, "stupid" would be an adequate descriptor. However, I am so much more than my mistakes - and so is everyone else. 

You are not that failed math test you (wrongly) thought would be easy, that engine light you decided to ignore for two months (until your car died on the freeway) or that tortilla you weren't sure was 100% gluten free, but ate anyway. As motivational speaker Denis Waitley says, "Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing."

casey the college celiac
Even the worst nights bring a new day...
If you have to define yourself by this mistake, remember to include the events that happened right afterward to: picking yourself up, making amends and deciding to kick ass the next day. 

...reflecting on what you want to do differently - and moving on

But maybe you're like me and your brain refuses to let you forget those horrible seconds, minutes or even days of mistakes. Maybe your stomach is still tied in guilty knots and you're spending so much time thinking of the past, you aren't even paying attention to what's happening now

In that case, reflect as much as you want. Ask yourself: Do I need to cry? Talk to someone else about what happened? Figure out what I would do differently? In a way, this blog post is my answer to that question. Yesterday, I wanted to keep the Niagara Falls vs. Casey's Computer battle a secret. Why would I choose to share what a silly mistake I made? 

But, when I was halfway through my classes the next day and still kept picturing water fly across my keyboard, I knew I needed to talk - or at least write - out my feelings. I'm certainly not celebrating this mistake (a computer mourning period is no joke), but I wanted to at least try to stop feeling ashamed or stupid because I'm not perfect. 

casey the college celiac
The lucky penny I found - which motivated me to write this!
And, hopefully, I can move on - and keep moving my water bottle faaaaar away from anything with an electric chord. 

The bottom line is that we all make mistakes, as cliche (and Disney) as that sounds. What separates us, though, is how we act and what we learn after we make them. 

For me, I'm deciding that "learning from my mistakes" means forgiving myself for actions I regret and focusing kicking booty in the future instead. What about you? 

What is one mistake you still kick yourself for? What tips do you have for moving past mistakes? Let me know - I'll take all the help I can get! 


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