How do you feel when you find out you made a mistake? Especially a big mistake tha that has real consequences? It absolutely sucks, right? If you're anything like me, you do whatever you can to make amends, then yell at yourself for a while, and renew your determination not to make that mistake--or any other mistake--ever again.

Nonsense. We all make mistakes, and however badly we may want to eliminate them from our lives, we can't. We're human. Making mistakes is a given. We can't change the fact that we're fallible, but we can change the way we react to our own mistakes so that they educate and uplift us rather than merely making us feel wretched. Learning how to make the most of our mistakes, instead of trying to hide them and forget about them is an essential skill for all of us, both as successful professionals and as human beings. Unfortunately, it's a skill that very few workplaces, and no schools, ever teach.

Fortunately, the folks at TED have compiled a playlist of brilliant talks that explore the whole question of mistakes in depth and will help you understand why they are not just acceptable but necessary. If you make the mistake of expecting yourself to be perfect, these will serve as a breath of fresh air:

1. Mistakes can only help us if we talk about them. 

In brave and emotional talk, emergency physician Brian Goldman talks about working in a medical system that does not allow for the possibility that doctors can make mistakes--even though hospital records tell us it happens all the time. It's a facade that makes health care more dangerous than it needs to be because doctors who are tacitly forbidden to discuss their own errors can't process them internally or warn others not to make the same missteps. Goldman breaks the facade himself by recounting some of his own errors including one that cost a patient her life.


2. Trial and error is better than attempting to have all the answers.

We live in an increasingly complex world, and try as we might to learn everything about so we'll have all the answers we need, it can't be done, explains economics writer Tim Harford. The only way to create systems that will work for us in this complex world is by trial and error. It's inescapable: in order to succeed, we first have to fail. 


3. It's time to give up the idea of one right answer.

An education system built on the idea that children go to school because that's where they'll get information is pointless in a world where those children all have Google on their smartphones. We can do better, argues longtime teacher Diana Laufenberg, by giving them the tools to figure out on their own how to use that information rather than focus on tests that all have one right answer. We will certainly be preparing them better for a world in which single right answers are in notably short supply.


4. A mistake is only a mistake if you don't react to it.

In the rarified world of improvisational jazz, there's no time to plan or think beyond the present moment, only to tune in closely to the people you're working with and focus your complete attention on collaborating with them. (Sounds a bit like entrepreneurship, doesn't it?)

In a presentation that mixes musical performance with explanation and experimentation, bandleader and vibraphonist Stefon Harris demonstrates how a seeming mistake becomes a new creative direction when your collaborators respond to it. It's only a mistake if everyone ignores it. 


5. Trying to be right gets us in terrible trouble.

We all know that we are human and bound to make mistakes--in theory. In practice, we all tend to think we're right about everything we believe at any given moment. But that belief leads to a great deal of trouble in the world because it causes us to assume that the people who disagree with us are either uninformed, stupid, or evil. It keeps us from considering, in the  moment, that what we think we know may be untrue.

"Wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz insists we must learn to do better. If we want to discover wonder, if we want to start to see that world as it really is, we need to look around at the vastness and complexity of our universe, she says, and say to ourselves: "Wow, I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong."


Published on: Dec 7, 2015