What my mistakes say about me

Nov 26, 2023

Having the ability to admit your own mistakes can be refreshingly liberating and lead to real growth and connection.

Did you know that raw ginger contains an enzyme that can tenderize meat, and the meat can become mushy if you add too much ginger or let it marinate too long? I learned this interesting tidbit when I was watching a cooking video on how to make Korean meatballs. The chef explained that he had accidentally added too much ginger and if he had let the meat sit as recommended in the recipe, the ginger would have made the meatballs too soft.

I was fascinated why he left this mistake in the video. He could have reshot the scene with the correct amount or just omitted mentioning the mistake. After all, who would know? However, sharing this mistake taught me the specific lesson about the enzyme in raw ginger. He went on to explain ways to neutralize that enzyme if you made the same mistake. I learned more from his video because of his mistake than if he had edited it away. This made me think, what do my mistakes teach me? And am I being honest when I make them?

The meatball mistake showed me that cooking has scientific components that come into play and how they can affect the final product. But other mistakes, what do they tell us? Like most people, I love the idea of learning from others’ mistakes, but I don’t necessarily want to share my mistakes, especially ones I consider elementary.

Here is my quandary: I want my work to seem “effortless,” while in reality, I know that mistakes are how one learns. The work of Carol Dweck, Stanford University professor and author of Mindset has been extremely influential to me as a parent. Mindset stands firmly apart from my education experience. Most of my schooling involved striving to appear smart and effortless. Nothing says high achiever more than doing well without even trying.

Dweck’s research outlines two mindsets: fixed and growth. A fixed mindset revolves around the theory that talent is innately limited: you either have it or you don’t. A person progresses until they hit some inevitable ceiling. Mistakes become an indictment against your intelligence. If you’ve spent much of your life with the identity of being able to learn quickly, you will unconsciously avoid activities that are difficult, especially ones where you can publicly fail. Staying “smart” is the ultimate objective.

What was refreshing about the chef’s casual mention of this mistake is that it could happen to anyone, even “experts.” I found myself a bit jealous of this chef – so casually revealing that he made a mistake, not caring if this was a reflection on his skills. I started to explore this a bit more. Humans make mistakes; it’s a given. Was I putting unrealistic expectations on myself that not only would I do things without error but also that I would make it look like it was easy?

Turns out this expectation now has a name: “effortlessly perfect,” a term first coined in the 2003 Duke University Women’s Initiative Study. In an effort to understand the status of female undergraduate and graduate students, the University studied many aspects of collegiate life and noticed this trend. The report concluded that the concept of effortlessly perfect ultimately stifled students’ ability in the pursuit of learning. Bottom line: you can’t learn new things if you’re focused on how you appear to others.

The growth mindset takes a complete opposite view: namely that one can grow talent, and this iterative process requires failure and corrections. Mistakes are not a sign that you’ve hit the ceiling because there is no ceiling. The growth mindset also pushes away from competition. Your talent and abilities are not in comparison to anyone else. We don’t weaponized mistakes or hide behind false perfection.

I watched Dweck’s TED Talk, focusing around the “power of yet.” She brings up a semantic choice that highlights the fixed and growth mindsets: “yet vs. now.” The “yet” concept gives freedom to make mistakes because talent is allowed to bloom versus scrutinized. One classroom actually used “not yet” as a score for exams, pushing students to keep trying toward mastery. Students responded well to knowing they were close and should keep trying versus seeing themselves as failures.

I realized that ginger mistake was a bit of a “yet” mindset. The chef explained the error and included a few fixes but didn’t position himself in this binary of being a “good chef” or not based on being error-free. Could it be helpful to admit that elements of my job are wobbly? For example, the other day, a younger coworker mentioned she was excited to attend a conference, but admitted some trepidation because of how packed the schedule was. I told her that I learned over the years that my figurative energy tank runs out quickly at conferences so I sometimes skip sessions and recharge in my room. I said that if I were to force myself to attend the entire conference from start to finish, I would be a cranky mess. Just admitting that I get cranky seemed to give this coworker some solace. The “effortlessly perfect” me would pretend that I enjoy two days of nonstop networking. Instead, I led with some honesty, admitting my past conference mistakes and sharing tips that worked for me.

So how do we create a culture of sharing mistakes? Years ago, I worked for a general contractor and the safety manager implemented a process of talking about “near misses.” A “near miss” is an incident that could have caused injury but was narrowly avoided. Near miss discussions take a lot of trust. After all, who wants to tell their boss that a beam almost hit someone? But ultimately, these were a great opportunity for learning. You see what could have happened and take precaution next time. The ginger in the cooking video is a near miss; it could have ruined the dish but didn’t because of certain steps.

The fixed mindset is extremely hard to release, at least for me. I doubt I will ever walk into the Monday morning staffing meeting and lead with a “guess what big mistake I made” opener. Self-awareness can be a good starting point. Are you harboring some “effortlessly perfect” ideations? Could you help yourself and others by owning your mistakes and possibly creating a zone of “yet”? Logically we know mistakes are valuable and lead to growth. Having the ability to admit your own mistakes can be refreshingly liberating and lead to real growth and connection. Maybe the new phrase for me going forward will be “effortlessly imperfect.” 

Janki DePalma, LEED AP, CPSM, is a senior associate and director of business development at Kirksey Architecture. Contact her at jankid@kirksey.com.

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