Are you a failure? Not after you learn about human fallibility

Are you a failure?

By: Dr. Michael Hall       Date: Mar 5, 2020
Reading Time: 5 minutes    Category: THINKING | Tags: FRAMING

When you set a goal, a vision for your life or for this year, remember that you will make mistakes.

After all, you and I are fallible human beings.

This is a good thing, a really good thing.

Being fallible and embracing your fallibility is what makes you human. It also makes you real and lovable.

Yet many people fear it, dread it, run from it, pretend that it is not so, and use all sorts of defense mechanisms in an attempt to escape it. If we ask, “Where do all of these responses come from?” The answer is obvious — from misunderstandings about fallibility. That then leads us to another question, “What do we misunderstand about fallibility?”

First, there is the misunderstanding that being fallible means being deficient as a human being. Now it is certainly true that we all experience the feelings of deficiency about all sorts of things. After all, we are not sufficient to do everything or to be everything. If we are measuring ourselves by others, especially by those who are skilled or competent in a given area, then of course we will feel deficient.

But deficiency in a given area is not the same thing as being deficient as a human being. All humans are deficient in numerous things. It’s inevitable and okay. What's not okay is to assume perfection or think that it is possible.

Second is the misunderstanding that confuses fallibility with negative emotions. Actually, to be fully alive and fully human is to experience not only the full range of positive emotions. But also the full range of negative emotions.

And negative emotions are good. Without them, we would not have a strong aversion to things that can be dangerous. The so-called “negative” emotions essentially provide us the move-away-from energy within our mind-body system so that when we find that something does not fit our mental model, we are equipped to make a change.

Fallibility, which literally means “liable to error,” is an essential condition of being human. It is essential in that it is a built in condition for being free, for thinking, for problem-solving, for learning, for growing, etc.

If we were not “liable to error” we would be completely determined and have no choice, not even the choice to make a mistake. Because our lives are not determined, we have room or space within our minds and actions to make other choices. And to have that freedom means to be free to make mistakes. This is our glory.

Are you wondering, “How can making mistakes be a glorious thing?” The glory is that we can learn. We can test something, see what works and what doesn't and constantly learn better. This is the foundation of science. It is the basis for the ongoing development of the human race.

Third is the misunderstanding that mistakes stop us. Not true. A mistake can cause you to pause. To take the time to learn from your mistakes. After you learn, you can make faster progress. The only thing that can stop you is an inability to learn.

Yet how much parenting and schooling conditions us to fear mistakes? It seems endemic in nearly every family and in every culture.

Forth is the misunderstanding that all mistakes are the same. There are all sorts of mistakes. They range on a continuum from minor inconsequential mistakes to fatal mistakes. There are also mistakes in all domains. Mistakes of mind, speech, actions, relationships, etc.

With mistakes, we can also ask about the intentional state of mind of the person who made the mistake. Was it an accident, or was it intentional? Was the person just clumsy and awkward in handling something? Were there other factors involved (weather, health, relationships, pressure, etc.)? Was the mistake a result of a plan to harm someone or destroy something?

These distinctions give you critically important questions to ask when you or someone else makes a mistake.

  • What is the mistake? How is that considered a mistake?

  • How big or small is the mistake? What are the potential consequences of the mistake?

  • In what domain is the mistake?

  • Who made the mistake? How knowledgeable and/or skill is that person in that domain?

  • Was the mistake an accident or intentional or some mixture of the two?

  • What is needed to correct the mistake? How long will that take?

  • How much effort will be required to correct the mistake?

Five is the misunderstanding that people make mistakes because they are bad and the only solution is to punish them. This is the biggest misunderstanding and the one that does the most damage. People make mistakes because they are fallible. Some more than others. But we know that mistakes result from not understanding. Therefore, the most helpful solution is for people to learn.

When we engage in “trial and error learning,” we are using mistakes to learn. Sometimes this is the best way to learn. You try something, see what happens, reflect on what to do, or what else one can do, and try it again. A big mistake that has lots of negative consequences needs to be recognized as soon as possible, and the person needs to make things right as quickly as possible. That's about responsibility and ownership.

Six is the misunderstanding that you must first test your ideas in the physical world. Experiments can be performed in your mind. Einstein used thought experiments to help achieve enormous advances. Since mistakes are caused by misunderstandings which only exist in the mind, thought experiments are powerful tools for learning how to think correctly. They also have the benefit of avoiding costly mistakes. For more information about thinking correctly, you can read my book, “ Executive Thinking, Activating Your Highest Executive Thinking Potentials .”

Mistakes are an inescapable fact of life and require your complete understanding. That's especially true if you are a parent. Children are naturally fearless and must be taught which mistakes are okay and which to avoid.

Perfectionism is the myth, the fallacy, the lie, and the goal that will defeat you in the long run.

If you are a manager, you can enable your people to own mistakes quickly and responsibly.

Your goal is the create the optimum conditions for learning and growing.

Copyright (c) 2020, Dr. Michael Hall; all rights reserved.

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