Reflecting on making mistakes

Mistakes are perceived as potential threats. It’s the fear of vulnerability to existential threats in the harsh world that feeds our mind with the avoidance mechanism against making mistakes. However, yielding too much to this fear of vulnerability hits us with another destructive outcome: seeking perfectionism at all costs. Perfectionism such a delusional will that can turn us into petty-minded, judgmental and unhappy person that we try to avoid originally. Let’s see if making mistakes is really bad or not.

Mistakes maketh the evolution. Without mistakes in the translation of genetic messages of DNA into new copies, we’d probably not exist now. Changes happen by arbitrary mutations, based on those random mistakes of DNA copy events. Therefore the mistakes are inevitable and unavoidable part of nature’s and humans’ existence and activities within the existence span. What we do is to absorb what is happening, process it in our minds, create a mental image and react to it. So the world that we think we know about perfectly and completely is actually the outcome of our perception about it. Thus making plans for the future, describing the things based on the bias of past, and “trying” to influence the now brings us the frustration of “the complexity of ourselves”. Therefore, we avoid making mistakes due to the uncertainty of potential outcomes.

A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.

James Joyce

Making mistake helps us improve. It does make it possible to identify what our limitations are, and explore new horizons to expand upon to get closer to the goals of truth and perfection. When we make a mistake, a certain pattern of negative electrical brain activity shows up – Error-related negativity (ERN). ERN is thought to come from the deep inside the middle of brain – cingulate cortex. Cingulate cortex after receiving the signal about an error alerts other parts of the brain through a nerve tract containing a collection of fibers. The result of this neural association is the focus on decreasing the likelihood of making the same mistake again, and it happens in less than 100ms (1/1000th of a second) after an error has been made. So, our cingulate cortex is actually very good at recognizing and signalling colleagues to protect itself from the vulnerability. Once solved, the mistake is actually stored in the memory cache of our brain, which is later used when confronted with a similar situation to identify if a specific action we are supposed to do can potentially generate an error we have identified before.

There are many ways on how to consciously make more mistakes with the intention of development and learning. We always do mistakes, regardless if we want or not. Therefore, an important trait to practice is to identify those mistakes and admit them. When analyzing a situation, differentiating facts from our reaction to it and identifying the causes of error based on the constructing elements of the situation does indeed help to put together the pattern. Another aspect of analyzing the mistakes is to make sure to separate the people from the problem. Blaming the person won’t bear any efficient outcome for developing resilience.

There are many mistakes to make. Why then repeat one multiple times?

Making mistake should be a per-requisite and very natural process for human development. Perseverance and passion makes the mistakes somehow tolerable. Moreover, creating a mental model on how we approach making mistake is what changes the game. If we approach it as as an “experiment”, then making mistakes becomes fun. Otherwise, risk-averse nature of ours does keep us from exploring new stuff due to the fear of vulnerability. Given we are living this life only once, being able to explore, learn and experience has more expected value weight than to survive safely. Therefore, experimenting new things, making mistakes and enjoying the experience makes living more meaningful.

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