Consciousness and mistakes

I made a couple of small, avoidable mistakes recently. As with such errors in judgment, I felt my ears burn a bit as I felt the minor embarrassment that accompanies them. I try to avoid wasting time beating myself up. So, I didn’t.

But, I asked myself (both times) – was I disengaged / unconscious at that moment?

It wasn’t. I made these errors of judgment despite the engagement.

It occurred to me that I was missing the point of consciousness. The point of consciousness isn’t to avoid mistakes – it isn’t possible to avoid them as long as you’re attempting to do things. If anything, you become more conscious of them – even the small ones that you might have ignored previously.

Instead, consciousness provides us an opportunity to work on a creative, constructive and corrective response. And, what a wonderful opportunity that is.

So, a note to self – the mistakes and bad judgment aren’t going away. It is up to me to learn, make different mistakes tomorrow and develop better judgment.

Good judgment comes from experience. And, experience comes from bad judgment.

Mistake free

The point of engagement isn’t to be mistake free and perfect. There is no such thing as being perfect as long as we’re alive and learning.

To learn, we experiment. And, as long as we experiment by trying and testing new things, mistakes are inevitable.

Instead, a consequence of engagement is that we spot our mistakes quicker – often right after we make them. That means we get the opportunity to craft a creative, constructive and corrective response. And, once we do that and understand what triggered it, we can aim to keep the benefits of that experiment and move on to different experiments and different mistakes.

Besides, it isn’t mistakes we should fear. It is the absence of a creative, constructive and corrective response that is the real problem.

An engaged life is a wonderfully human life. It is what being alive is all about.

And, making mistakes is an important part of being alive and human.

Making your own mistakes

A member of this community and wiser friend wrote in with a lovely reflection with her takeaways on the post on celebrating ourselves. One of her reflections was around making a conscious effort to make her own mistakes, living her life the way she wanted to live and not living a life others wanted her to live.

And, to that end, she shared this quote from ‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. The book is about a butler who served a Nazi master and is about how his extreme loyalty to his master cost him dearly. The quote –

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

A keeper.

Finding root causes

Every once in a while, there comes a day when I feel like I’m just stumbling through it. One mistake or misstep seems to follow another. And, within a few hours, they all seem to snowball into something bigger than they really should be.

This happened again a week ago and, for the first time, I did something that was unusual. I was waiting for the an event I’d organized to start in 20 minutes and was thinking about how best to use the time. Instead, thanks to a suggestion from a friend to relax and slow down a bit, I did just that. I stared into space for 20 minutes.

This ran completely counter to how I was feeling, of course. I was feeling all over the place and it felt like I’d only get better after a few corrective actions. But, I realize now that those are the moments when you need breaks the most. Slow down and take a step back – especially when you don’t want it and particularly when you are making mistakes. It is very similar to the idea of doing less and going to sleep early when having a bad day. The previous distinction in my mind was that bad days were when the universe seemed to go against you while these days were your own doing.

Second, I spent time in the 20 minutes thinking about the snowball of mistakes I’d made in the morning and attempting to find the root cause. I did this by working my way through each of them and asking “why did I do that?” I soon realized the root cause issue was straightforward – I hadn’t slept well. I’d woken up in the middle of the night and, as I was worried about something, thought I’d start working. Bad decision. Always prioritize sleep. After an hour, I’d realized that was futile and tried going back to sleep. And, I didn’t sleep so well. This really hit home as sleep has been the single biggest root cause for days when I’ve felt error prone over the years. I guess a lack of it robs you of willpower, bandwidth and thinking capacity. In short, you say the wrong things and make bad decisions.

A study done a few years ago found many executives and politicians barely got 4 hours of sleep.

Can you imagine what that can do to companies and the world?

The anatomy of a mistake

Last weekend, I decided to add 75 new friends I’d gotten to know over a week to the 200 words project with an option to opt-out.

In hindsight, that was a mistake. I judge it as one because it has given me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach ever since. What I should have done is made it an opt-in. That it seems so obvious now makes it even more exasperating.

Rather than kick myself for the result of the decision, it makes for an interesting case for analysis. What led to the mistake? I can think of 2 reasons –

1. Sleep deprivation and illness. Low sleep, not feeling great => limited willpower. Beware of decisions you make when you are low on willpower.
2. No clear decision process. Generally, behind every bad decision is the gap left by the absence of a process. In this case, I have always added folk to the 200 words project via a mix of opt-ins and opt-outs depending on how well I know the person. It is my way of staying in touch with people and it turns out to be very nice to be in touch with folk from 6 years ago thanks to a consistent weekly email. Additionally, there is a lot of effort that goes into making it useful – so I don’t see it as a spammy share (talk about bias…). And, therein lies the problem with an undefined decision making process that, in reality, is very intricate. I’m better off simplifying it by just saying opt-in only. And that’s what I’ll do from here on in.

A few other learnings I have taken away –
1. Behind every mistake is a bad decision. Don’t kick yourself for the mistake, fix the decision. Every mistake, thus, is just a learning opportunity. And yes, this is hard to implement. I seem to get there thanks to this blog but it only happens after kicking myself a few times.
2. You amplify the bad reactions and forget the good.  This is hard to correct as it is human nature to focus on a negative reaction. It is a good reminder, however.
3. No one cares about you and your mistakes as much as you do. Again, a reminder.
4. Bad feelings in the stomach are a sign that some insecurity has been pricked. This one is an insecurity of feeling unfairly judged.
5. Keep flexing your “rejected” muscle. Try, fail and get rejected, try again. Trying again matters a lot. Your “rejected” muscles need to be working well so you don’t get too upset with yourself after you make a mistake.

A friend wondered aloud yesterday as to how I managed to think of a learning every day. I pointed to the more-than-average number of mistakes I seem to make. I hope he’s reading this one. 🙂

Finally, to add a dash of perspective, I did remind myself that these aren’t mistakes my grandchildren will ever even know of. That’s a good reminder, too (since we are in reminder zone).

We live and we learn.

If mistakes are inevitable (and they are)..

.. and the thing that is most remembered about them over time is a creative, constructive and corrective response, then why the hell are we so scared to make them?

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol won them worldwide trust while British Petroleum were brought under intense scrutiny. Both these mistakes are about as large as they get. And, yet, they’re inevitable. Machines fail, humans make mistakes, and circumstances sometimes go against you.

Ignore the impulse to avoid them. You can’t. Ignore the impulse that says “Oh shucks, I am screwed and should cover that up.” That’s both useless and harmful in the long run. And, focus entirely on the response. In fact, take it a step forward and make it a point to use every response as a part of your mistake recovery practice regime.

And, once you’ve done that, share it with the world so other’s can learn to do that. If you don’t know how about doing that, write to me. We’ll anonymize it, share it, and have a good laugh. No embarrassment required. By reflecting on it and ensuring an appropriate response, we will have done as much possible to avoid making them again. That’s the best we can do.

Mistakes are how we get better. Mistakes are how we get made.