“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
I can well remember having made a big mistake in my early years at my company, and it weighed heavily on me. Upon confessing my guilt to a friend at work, he said, “That? Happens every day.” With those four words, I felt greatly relieved, especially since he had been with the company a long time.
How we react to mistakes says much about who we are, and goes a long way toward whether we put those mistakes behind us. I’ve kept a pad in my desk where I write down my mistakes. I do this not to flog myself for them. Just the opposite, by writing them down, they go away when I close the drawer. In addition, I can look at things I did 10 or so years ago and realize that I can’t even remember why they were a big issue.
By being free to dispense grace for mistakes, we create opportunities to take new, better actions. Every successful company can point to huge investments that turned out to be duds. (Less than 20 years ago, Apple’s stock was in single digits and their new, innovative product was the Newton.) On a more personal level, don’t you love and want to emulate those people who look the other way when you embarrass yourself?
Obviously, if we don’t learn from mistakes we are bound to repeat them. But grace allows us to admit to them, acknowledge them so that we get their full value. According to Joseph T Hallinan, an American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in his book “Why We Make Mistakes”, most of our errors are systemic and best dealt with in that way. For example, he cites an improvement in the error statistics for anesthetists when they simply changed the valve that is turned to deliver anesthesia so that it could only go one way. In other words, the problem wasn’t really personal. When we look at the mistakes we or others make in this light, we can see them as curbs on the side of the road, designed to help us stay in the middle of the path we should be on.
The next time you’re driving in traffic and someone cuts you off, take it as an exercise in growth to breathe, smile, and realize there are factors that you may not know. When you’re at your next family gathering, why not keep quiet about the embarrassing things your relatives have done. And when you mess up, look at it, learn from it, and then close the drawer on it.