Some mistakes are game-changers and some aren’t. Thomas Fiffer offers three questions to help understand the difference.
Let’s face it. We all screw up. We forget stuff, do stupid or insensitive things, show up late, even drop the ball on important projects. And we piss people off in the process. The saying “To err is human,” from poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” is as valid today as it was in 1711. But some mistakes matter and shift the dynamic of a relationship, even causing it to break down irretrievably, while others make no difference in the grand scheme of things. How can we tell which is which, and avoid the whoppers that have truly destructive, life-changing potential? Here are three questions you can ask yourself—about your own mistakes or those of others that affect you—that will help you distinguish the big from the small, the impactful from the irrelevant.
1. Is the mistake isolated or part of a pattern? The fancy word for something that happens once or infrequently is ‘anomalous.’ The opposite of anomalous is typical. If you are—or someone else is—making the same mistake over and over again, you’re not only not learning from it, you’re also engaging in a destructive and self-destructive pattern. Whether it’s showing up late for work, failing to call or text your partner at the appointed time, or indulging in unhealthy behavior, mistakes that form a pattern are not really mistakes but behavioral problems in need of correction. Another way to answer this question is to determine whether the mistake is circumstantial—meaning due to a particular circumstance such as a flat tire or a sleepless night—or behavioral—meaning happening without any external causes. The trap with this approach, however, is that some people move from crisis to crisis and blame their mistakes on circumstance when in fact they are creating (or even imagining) the causal events. So ask yourself, is this how this person is or tends to be, or is this simply something he or she happened to do this time.
2. Will you remember the mistake tomorrow or next week? You forgot to pack your kid’s school lunch, send a thank-you email, or pay an important bill. Or you snapped at your partner and later apologized. How much difference in your life will these actions or omissions really make? Are they something you’re likely to keep talking about, rehashing, and kicking yourself or someone else over as life goes on? Or will they slide by in life’s day to day flow of effort, failure, and imperfection? It’s important to phrase the question this way, because in the moment, small mistakes can seem to carry tremendous consequences, and you may feel—or be subjected to—guilt or shame. Measuring mistakes against the time continuum helps put them in more accurate perspective.
3. Are you capable of making the same mistake yourself? To forgive may indeed be divine (the second half of the Alexander Pope quote) as in God’s province, but if you can’t forgive a mistake you could just as easily be capable of as the person who made it, you’re guilty of a holier than thou attitude, also known as hypocrisy. Stepping back and having a, “There but for the grace of God go I” attitude about the ways others screw up and let us down provides a buffer that helps contain frustration and anger and prevent us from lashing out, which can be a big mistake of its own.
In relationships we value and want to keep, patience and forbearance when others make mistakes that aren’t world-enders is key to the relationship’s longevity. If you tend to be a perfectionist, these questions can help you gain some perspective and relieve some of your stress. And if you treat your partner, friend, or colleague with a measure of understanding and humility, you can expect to be given the same grace in return. This creates a virtuous cycle that keeps us focused on what really matters.