To Err Really Is Human: What to Make of Mistakes


It produces itself by struggling with itself.

- Karl Jaspers

he television program House was the most popular show in the world in the year 2008. At first glance, its success might seem a bit odd, the adorable Hugh Laurie aside. The formula it used was a bleak one – an extremely surly medical fellow and his team of young, eager physicians make half a dozen grave diagnostic mistakes with every patient before, usually, solving the medical mystery right in time to save a life. Sometimes their solutions came too late and sometimes they made fatal mistakes in treatment choices. Deep in the series concept, however, was the understanding that his team has been tasked with diagnosing only the most obscure illnesses, and that distinction is an important one. The viewer was given the sense that the mistakes made in each (and every) episode had little to do with stupidity and much to do with heroics.

Too bad we don’t characterize the mistakes we make in our daily lives in the same way.

No, most of us believe that, in our own lives, error equals idiot. We may give lip service to the belief that errors are unavoidable or to the idea that we can learn precious lessons from our mistakes, but few of us actually handle it well when we do miscalculate.

Why are our own mistakes so hard to manage? Well, first of all mistakes make us feel icky, and second, our schooling around how to handle mistakes is a little hit or miss. Both of these roadblocks to effectively handling mistakes need to be addressed if we wish to move robustly through our day. Otherwise we run the very real risk of getting trapped in the frozen place described by existential philosopher Hannah Arendt: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.” That quote may feel somewhat overdramatic relative to our day-to-day goofs, but, after a good think, you can see how unresolved feelings around mistakes can accumulate in us until we do, indeed, believe our life no longer has any redeeming value. And our huge mistakes can absolutely render us frozen if we lack the skills that allow us to recover.

The aim of this article is, then, to help you double check your thinking about what mistakes are, to review the training you received on how to handle them, and to encourage you go back in time to clean up your relationship with past errors. This article is not emotional charity – a cheery reframe to take you off the hook for sloppy behavior. It is, rather, a tough-minded look at how we can better confront the reality that we have made an error, do so in a manner that doesn’t prevent us from digesting the information we need to gain from it and move resiliently back into the stream of our life.


As everyone knows, mistakes are really unpleasant to commit. Even little ones. Think about walking down the sidewalk and tripping. What do you automatically do? Turn around to see what caused you to trip. It’s partly to learn what to avoid in the future, but it’s also partly to see if you can find something to blame. “Well. That broken section of sidewalk is certainly dangerous!” Small to medium blunders precipitate embarrassment, a very unpleasant feeling. Big mistakes cost us a lot more. When that error shudder hits – at the moment you recognize you have made a large and irreversible mistake – your entire limbic system will hail the error with a biochemical cascade of awfulness. Close on the heels of the terrible feelings arrive the slew of thoughts about the consequences of the mistake. Those thoughts, sadly, precipitate further limbic reaction. What a horrid stew to be in. Left unattended, this situation can lead to the biochemical claustrophobia described by Arendt above.

Doesn’t it make sense to learn how to move as quickly as possible out of that stew and into a calmer, wiser place from which to assess the damage and brainstorm solutions?

That brings us to our other roadblock.

Why is our schooling about how to handle mistakes so slipshod? It’s because learning how to tolerate the trial-and-error process of normal life is the mental hygiene equivalent of making sausages – people are too squeamish to talk about it, let alone study it.

We have come now to the existential hub of this topic. If adults cannot study what it means to be a person at the foundational level, they will not learn how to coexist with the givens of human existence. If they do not learn how to coexist with the givens, they will not be able to teach that skill to their offspring or students. Apropos mistakes, the given that adults need to learn to tolerate is a doozy. It is this: there is no avoiding the fact that our lives will only have meaning to us if we create that meaning by taking responsibility for making authentic and coherent choices in the here and now. You can see where that leads. Every mistaken choice we make can undermine our very essence as a being.

Most adults want to teach the children in their care that mistakes are okay, but since they have not themselves profoundly absorbed this lesson, and since our culture understandably doesn’t want us to be making errors, kids are routinely taught that mistakes are anything but okay. Absent sincere cultural reassurance, most of us become, to some extent, mistake phobic. What follows from that fear can be: an extremely conventional life in which the “owner” of the life defaults to culturally approved options only; a fairly cautious life organized around avoiding mistakes by avoiding risks; or a fairly chaotic life in which we avoid thinking about (and thus learning from) our mistakes.

Four mistake categories

To steer clear of excessive conformity, caution or chaos in our lives, it makes sense to deepen our understanding of what mistakes are. Few parents give us “error” lessons, but just as it makes sense to learn how to fall before you learn how to ski, it is very helpful to learn a lot about errors when you are learning how to design the experiments of your life.

There are four categories of errors, so before we can learn from a mistake, we have to decide which kind of mistake it was.

Error of commission: When we do something that doesn’t advance us toward a better version of ourselves, we have made an error of commission. We tried the wrong thing or did the right thing at the wrong time or mishandled the right thing at the right time. These errors often occur when we haven’t had the time or the patience to think the design through. We may have, for example, impulsively taken on a new project at work that we know nothing about or naïvely tried to buy our first house without seeking advice from experienced homeowners, thereby overreaching our current abilities. Whatever the case, we are liable to find ourselves suffering a setback. That’s okay. It is not a sin to implement a poorly designed experiment. Indeed, errors of commission can actually indicate that we are on the cutting edge of being ourselves – out where we haven’t gone before but where there is a high probability of error. We need to understand this so we can rest assured that it is okay to consult with others and perhaps redesign our protocol to try again. But a pattern of committing errors suggests we need to look at our tendencies to be impulsive, naïve or overextended. If one or several of these tendencies seem to be plaguing you, the first chapter of The Road Less Traveled would be a helpful resource.


Too Good For Her Own Good

- Claudia Bepko and Jo-Ann Krestan

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

- Mario Livio



- Connie Willis

The Next Right Thing

- Dan Barden

Never Change

- Elizabeth Berg

Small Steps

- Louis Sachar



Why is it so hard as parents to teach our kids that mistakes are okay?

I think there are two reasons for this. First, I think there is terrible pressure on parents to have most excellent children, both for the protection of the child and for the ego of the adult. We want our kids to learn to avoid mistakes for then they will avoid...


Error of omission: When we fail to do something that would advance us toward a better version of ourselves, we have made an error of omission. (This type of mistake, obviously, can be a little harder to spot.) What would lead us to pull back from life, causing us to miss out on trying new things? Perhaps the adults around us failed to help us dream exciting dreams about our future selves. Or perhaps we are failing to implement powerful experiments because we don’t know how to tell if we’re ready to do them. If our lives seem to be at a standstill, we need to seek out adults who dream big and learn from them how to aspire to an expanded version of ourselves. Biographies and autobiographies are also great resources for learning about glorious risk taking.

Bad luck: Often our mistakes are simply due to bad luck. We took a risk and fate decided not to reward us. Perhaps you chose your graduate program based on a specific faculty person who was secretly getting ready to move to another university. Or maybe you pushed yourself to run an extra half mile, which caused you to miss a critical phone call or pull a hamstring. The point being you did your job – you tried – but the cosmos had other ideas for you.

Aside: One of the hardest things for youngsters to accept is bad luck. That’s why many children’s stories and much young adult fiction address tragedy. It’s a way for kids to watch how others develop a relationship with fate. Sad stories about children or puppies or raccoons dealing with adversity (my favorite as a kid was Boxcar Children) help us integrate the truth that each life will contain some tragedy. We do our children no favors by protecting them from these sad tales or shielding them from difficult truths that they are truly able to handle.

As always, the process of tolerating bad luck is helped along when the grownups around us have a philosophical and/or spiritual relationship with fate that they are willing to discuss with us. With guidance and support from our elders, bad luck stops being an indication that the cosmos finds us unworthy and becomes instead a statistical state of affairs. The odds caught up with us and our life took a negative turn. If we believe that sometimes what look like errors in judgment are just bad luck, we can then try to figure out if and when to try again. What we need from our environment is advice, support and examples of courage, not a statement from our adults that our bad luck is proof that even the heavens don’t like us. There are many adult novels that can help us learn how others face fate. A few of those would be Sunnyside by Glen David Gold, A Reckoning by May Sarton, and The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich.

Bad call: Finally, sometimes we’re mistaken in the belief that we’ve made a mistake. When the world frowns at us, we most often assume that we have done something wrong. When we think we’ve misstepped, it makes sense to check out the stories we’re in danger of believing. Are there myths telling us we shouldn’t want to be a female firefighter or an assertive waitperson? Or that we should want to pursue a highly paid job in sales when we much prefer the company of books to people? Or maybe we are on a frontier where the very culture is trying to define itself. For example, we may expand our recycling program a little ahead of the demand for post-consumer material. So when we receive feedback that we are making a mistake, it is always wise to check who is making that assessment and why. There is a good chance we are actually successfully carrying out our lives and just need more confidence and poise to allow us to tactfully continue on our way.

Four strategies for handling missteps

How peaceful and fruitful it would be to learn a wiser protocol when it comes to the hit-or-miss reality of a full-bodied life. To that end, I would recommend making the following four psychological moves when you make a mistake: feel any necessary guilt but shake off the chagrin; uncover the causes; talk to yourself with tenderness; and remember that you now know what you know now.

Feel the guilt but shake off the chagrin: It is both normal and appropriate to react to a misstep with distress. It is also both normal and appropriate to feel guilty if your mistake injured someone. Negative feelings are helpful because they both alert us to missteps and motivate us to change. But we have to shake off the chagrin before it causes us to tense up or it releases that terrible saboteur of self-esteemshame. You’ll see professional athletes throw off their dismay when they miss a free throw. They literally shake their bodies and then mime an effective shot, reminding themselves in the process that they have a good shot at making the next shot. They are able to do this for two reasons. First, they have practiced controlling negative thinking and are very good at it. Second, they have years of data in their heads that prove to them that mistakes are going to be made in the best of games by the best of players. They understand that mistakes often mean that they are taking risks and that risk taking is kind of the point of sports (and life).

When we face a mistake, then, we need to resist the habit of focusing too long on our feelings of guilt, disappointment and embarrassment, and move instead to focus on whether or not we can handle the situation. So our inner dialogue should sound less like this “Oh, shoot, shoot, shoot. I can’t believe I just did that. I feel so humiliated. I’ll never live this down. What’s the matter with me??” and more like this “Oh, shoot, shoot, shoot. I can’t believe I just did that. Okay, okay. Breathe. Can I handle the fact that I made this mistake? Well, can I, punk?” Chances are, you’ve made mistakes before and, when you stop to think about it, chances are you have handled them. To further help you shake off the chagrin, recall this existential truth: You don’t have to like making an error, but you do have to handle it because you aren’t fully living your life if you’re not making mistakes.

Uncover the causes: What is a mistake? A mistake occurs when a behavior you have chosen to do or not do causes something to happen that doesn’t match with what you were hoping would happen. Before you spend time trying to figure out why you miscalculated, however, check to see if you did, indeed, make a mistake. As described above, negative occurrences that are the result of bad luck aren’t mistakes. (It is not a mistake if you plan an outdoor wedding for 2 p.m. on an August afternoon, even if your back-up indoor facility burns down at noon and a freak hailstorm hits at 1:30.) Nor are situations when you are quite happy with the results of your actions despite what others around you believe. (It is not a mistake if you buy a dumpy, little house to fix up even though you are the only one who sees potential in it.) Once you determine that a mistake has been made, however, it’s time to figure out what caused the disconnection between your intentions and your outcomes. It could be:

1. Lack of accurate information

Our days are spent making endless decisions based, in large part, on what has worked for us up until now. Some of those decisions will precipitate errors because sometimes we are missing essential facts. In other words, we, like Dr. House, earnestly make our decisions about what will be effective in our future based on what we have learned in our past. Oftentimes we haven’t learned enough. When we agree to host a dinner for 18 people, for instance, we do so because we believe that our abilities match the challenge. We’ve cooked successful dinners for 6, so we’ll just triple everything. What could possibly go wrong?

2. Lack of time

Sometimes we don’t have the time to make a thoroughly best guess and sometimes we simply don’t take the time. When you make a decision in a hurry, you will be using intuitive thinking because it is fast. (Intuitive thinking utilizes fewer, benchmark-type facts and jumps to a conclusion. Deductive thinking gathers all available information and settles into a decision. Each style of thinking has its advantages.) Obviously, if the most essential facts aren’t foremost in your mind right before it leaps, you may spring off in a wildly wrong direction. Back to the example of the dinner party, if you don’t stop to ask yourself if you even have room in your apartment for 18 people, you may be rushing toward disaster.

3. Poor relationship with future goals

The daily decisions we make should be taking us toward our most cherished goals for ourselves. If we lose track of who we are seeking to become, we can make choices that work at cross-purposes with our dreams. These types of mistakes will be hard to recognize because they require us to compare where we are now with where we could have been if only we had chosen differently. For example, we could be getting ready to graduate from college with a fine GPA and a major in economics when we are actually wishing to become an art historian. Or we could find ourselves with a lovely new car, good friends and many fine dining-out experiences but no savings for a down payment on a house. A bright future memory will guide us like an existential northern star.

4. Lack of caring

When you can’t summon a sense of urgency to pay attention to what matters to you or you lack concern over the consequences of doing what you are deciding to do, mistakes begin to pile up. Chronic procrastination, futile short cuts or apathetic choices will alert you to this type of mistake. You have the information, you have the time and you know what you want out of life, you are just too dejected to care. Drinking and driving is an example of a mistake of this type, as are not going to the dentist or “forgetting” to pay your bills on time. Please pay close attention to errors in this category. If you find that you can’t be bothered to engage in powerful or effective behaviors, give that a very, very good think.

5. Influence of others

Oftentimes we are swept up into the social energy of others. This can be positive (walking group, book club or friends who love to cook) or dangerous (drinking buddies, poker night or friends who love extra sharp sarcasm.) If you go along to get along or if you let others routinely make decisions for you as a member of their group, the decisions they make will be taking you toward their future and not yours.

A caveat here: these five categories of the causes of errors are made distinct for clarification purposes. In real life, most often several reasons underlie the mistakes that we make.

Talk to yourself with tenderness: When the time comes to debrief yourself about what you have learned from your mistake and for a pep talk about what to try next, there are two things to keep in mind. Life is difficult. And, it is easier for us to learn when we are spoken to kindly.

Life is difficult because every human is unique, meaning we each have to design a custom-made life for ourself. Therefore we will be doing a lot of designing in the field, making things up as we go along. What that means is that life is the perpetual process of “make your next, best guess!” Mistakes will be made in the best of lives by the best of people. Remember?

Speak to yourself kindly. If you lacked information, be gently honest with yourself about what you did know and be patient with the fact that you didn’t know what you didn’t know. Don’t forget that not knowing something isn’t an indication of stupidity. It is an indication that you simply haven’t learned that something yet. (But if you didn’t know it before, you sure do now.) If you lacked time, double check to see why. If you didn’t have time, you must assume that you did the best you could. If you did have time, trust that you’ll remember this icky feeling, meaning you’ll probably take more time next time to think things through. If your mistake was due to lost contact with your future goals, work to rekindle your passion to brighten the beacon of a wondrous someday. Again, if lack of caring is causing you to misstep, take this very, very seriously. Try to determine where you are on the continuum of just slightly apathetic to seriously depressed then take the necessary steps to address your disengagement. Professional help may be appropriate. Finally, if the problem is over-dependence on the influence of others, remember that, although we humans are designed to affiliate, we must consider the source of our influences. Effective people decide that only the people who matter, matter.

Remember that you now know what you know now: Who doesn’t have at least one fantasy of going back in time “knowing what I know now” to redo a disappointing episode from our past? What was enviable about Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day was the endless gathering of information coupled with a daily do-over. We will never be able to go back to do a day perfectly, but I have found that life most often offers us another opportunity to put our new knowledge to good use. You may never be able to win over your high school crush, but you can use your new and improved social skills to win a new account, make good friends or revitalize a marriage. Please believe me when I say I’m not trying to cheer you up. What we learn from mistaken behavior is hard fought knowledge and, as such, should be afforded great respect. You know what you know now because you struggled and suffered. Justifiable pride in that new knowledge can bring it to the forefront of your thinking, enhancing your chances of finding a great new way to utilize it.

One last point. A major starting point for personal philosophical exploration is a boundary situation and all mistakes create a boundary situation. If we learn to ponder our missteps philosophically, we can more and more easily keep our individual humanity in perspective. Every human being is one of those determined little animals who can only say: it seemed like a good idea at the time. That phrase is not an excuse, it is a bitter truth. And existential truths like that are best contemplated from a calm and gentle orientation that allows us to integrate whatever conclusions we reach into our operating systems. So to reiterate, when you blunder: feel any appropriate guilt but shake off the chagrin; uncover the causes; talk to yourself with tenderness; and remember that you now know what you know now.

Mistakes are just mistakes. Some are tiny and easy to laugh off. Some turn out to be miraculous – like penicillin or Velcro. Some are excruciatingly painful. All are human.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.