Anatomy of a Mistake

By Chris Crosser, Co-Owner of Free Range Nonprofit Solutions

I've discovered that I've made a mistake, and suddenly I'm six years old again. I feel so wrong. I look around to see if anyone is watching me. Where's my teacher, my authority figure who might make my embarrassment public? I fight back fear and shame, an overwhelming desire to time travel to undo what I did. I realize that I'm holding my breath. My head is bowed, shoulders hunched. I let out my breath and breathe in again. I look at my watch. It's been 30 seconds and a lifetime.

My American culture talks a lot about mistakes. A quick search on the Internet resulted in 13,900,000 results. Most were about how to avoid making mistakes. Heck, one article even suggested that not making mistakes was the biggest mistake of all. 

My Aha! moment with making mistakes came by watching Kathryn Schultz's TED Talk "On Being Wrong." During her talk, she shares a wonderful analogy of what realizing you're wrong can feel like.

"Do you remember that Loony Tunes cartoon where there's this pathetic coyote who's always chasing and never catching a roadrunner? In pretty much every episode of this cartoon, there's a moment where the coyote is chasing the roadrunner and the roadrunner runs off a cliff, which is fine -- he's a bird, he can fly. But the thing is, the coyote runs off the cliff right after him. And what's funny -- at least if you're six years old -- is that the coyote's totally fine too. He just keeps running -- right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes that he's in mid-air. That's when he falls."

The moment when the coyote looks down and realizes that he's in mid-air, he feels like my six-year-old self. But luckily I'm not six, I'm fifty-one. And I've learned how not to stay with my embarrassment, fear, and shame for long.

That mid-air moment is the moment I now cherish, it's the moment I'm grateful for. Because I see that moment as an opportunity not to plummet to the canyon floor, but to reach out to those around me, to trust the people who are in the room with me.

How did I get to be so bold? Experience has shown me that when I open up, acknowledge my mistake, and make myself vulnerable, my loved ones, my friends, and my colleagues hold me up. And that's where I can learn from the mistake, correct it if possible, and be an adult.

My friend Mary once shared this exercise she learned in graduate school. Stand up straight. Take a big step forward, fling your arms out wide, and shout to the sky, "I love to make mistakes!" When I first did it, it felt like I was taking a huge chance, that I was the coyote running off the cliff. But that said, I still urge you to take that chance. You might even feel all the people around you ready to hold you up as you start to fall.