Why constantly changing course as we learn from mistakes is the most direct way to get there

Common Mistakes

Space shuttles are technically off course about 90% of the time.  This is because they’re heading toward a moving target, from a moving target.  So they keep adjusting as they learn from mistakes.

Why should our lives be any different?

Years ago I had dinner with a friend who had desperately wanted to be married but found herself going through a divorce.  It was obvious to me that she and her husband were not well matched.

They may have been when they got married, but they’d both grown in different directions.

In spite of her unhappiness in the marriage, she was afraid getting a divorce was a mistake.

I said, “Maryann, I promise you that in five years we’ll have dinner in this same restaurant, look back on this night, and you’ll laugh at ever having ever doubted this was the right decision.”

And that’s exactly what happened.


There is an inconsistency in our culture:  we’re told we learn from mistakes, but we’re humiliated for making them.  Ouch!

Learning and growth has to include failure.  Unfortunately, the U.S. education system does not value exploration and lack of success.

It’s a good thing children learn to walk before they get to school.  Because in school they would be demoted for falling down too much.  And they’d give up before ever learning to walk.

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”  Einstein

We’re so afraid to make mistakes that we often blame others instead of taking responsibility for our own actions.  The wise take responsibility and admit their mistakes.


I spent a good deal of my life playing it safe, terrified of making mistakes.  I was the student afraid to raise my hand in class.

The turning point came the day I was asked to make a list of the ten people I most admired, and why I admired them.  

The result was a revelation to me:  the people I most admired had all made huge mistakes, picked themselves up and started all over again.

I figured if the people I most admired could do that, I could, too.

In my life, I have had a series of different career and personal goals.  I changed course so much that my parents thought I would never stick to anything.

But in retrospect, I learned from and used everything in my life experiences.  And I gained confidence along the way.

Today most people consider me successful, so it turned out all right in the long run.  Just like the space shuttles, I spent a lot of time off course and making corrections.  But I got to my intended goal:  a happy, healthy, successful life.


20th Century inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller said, “There are no mistakes – only learning experiences.”

So how do we learn from our mistakes?  I’ve come up with the following questions to ask ourselves:

1.  Why was it a mistake?  Who said?  By what standard?

[It might comfort you to know that “post it notes” were the result of a glue experiment gone wrong.  In fact, the prestigious Wharton School of Business has a “brilliant mistake competition” based on the proposition that making mistakes can be the smartest thing you can do.  In fact, not making mistakes may be the greatest mistake of all.]

2.  What did you learn?

3.  Did it help you redefine your goals?  Are you clearer now on what you want?

4.  Did you try again?  Perhaps with a slight correction?

5.  Did you learn something about yourself?  Perhaps your talents lie elsewhere.  There is no shame in that.

6.  Were you able to take responsibility?

7.  Did your mistake negatively impact someone else?  Were you courageous enough to admit it and apologize?

8.  Was it a short-term mistake or a long-term mistake?  Know the difference.

9.  Were you able to move on without obsessing about the outcome?

You’ll learn, you’ll grow, and you’ll have other life experiences from which you might decide to change your goals completely.  And that’s perfectly o.k.

We can’t all excel at everything we undertake, but we all have the ability to develop our potential and improve at any undertaking.  And we simply must be willing to fail.

“Deliberately making errors goes against the human grain. But trying too hard to avoid them may be the greatest mistake of all.” Paul J.H. Schoemaker

I’d be thrilled if you would share in the comments section your biggest “mistake” and what you learned from it.

Photo Credit: Brett Jordan via Compfight cc

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