What to Do When You Mess Up

Admit it, fix it, and move on.

When I was a youngster, I did something stupid. I had a job mowing the neighbor’s lawn. The grass had gotten to be about 6 inches high before the neighbor offered to hire me, but I still saw the orange extension cord uncoiled in the yard connecting the pool filter to the house. The grass was so high that I reasoned it would hold the cord down if I just mowed over it. You can guess what happened. I caused a short, ruined the cord, and wrapped it around the spindle under the mowing deck. What did I do? I fessed up. I told the neighbor what I did, so they could reset the breaker. Then I unwound the cord, finished mowing the lawn, and rode my bicycle to Kmart to buy a new extension cord.

It’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, the most successful people you have read about all made mistakes. That’s how they learned and became successful. Error analysis is the most powerful method for learning. Learning-Focused tells its clients that McREL research reports that error analysis exceeds traditional learning methods by a factor of 1.61. But if error analysis is such a powerful tool, why do so many of us live in the land of rainbows and unicorns? Denial ain’t a river in Egypt! So what should you do???

1. Admit it.

First, if you make a mistake, just fess up. Everyone makes mistakes. The most successful people in the world have made mistakes in their pursuits. That’s how they learned. Older students are a little more mature and usually better able to acknowledge mistakes than younger students. In any event, admitting to a mistake can be a tough pill to swallow for anyone. But when facts contradict a strongly held belief, give yourself permission to modify your beliefs. Being unwilling to even consider an alternate point of view especially when presented with incontrovertible evidence is a sign of emotional immaturity.

Assuming truth and reason prevail…

2. Fix it.

This is an important step. After you say you’re sorry, ask how you can make it right. While fixing a mistake often can mean accepting a new set of beliefs, it can also mean the opportunity to fix the mistake. If the waiter brings airline chicken when you ordered ribeye steak, he fixes the mistake. By simply returning the chicken to the kitchen, and replacing it with steak, the mistake is fixed. While the restaurant has to discard the chicken, the customer is happy and will eat there again and probably tell others about the experience.

Sometimes the mess requires extensive clean-up. But anything worth doing is worth doing right, even if it takes more than one try.

3. Move on.

This can be tough. When a mistake is made, admitting it and fixing it are one thing. But then allow yourself to move on. Don’t dwell on a mistake once you have acknowledged it and fixed it. Look forward through the windshield, not backward in the rear view mirror. This also means letting others who have made mistakes to move on once they have finished admitting to and fixing their mistakes. As a teacher-dad, I too often see that kids are slow to let friends off the hook after admitting to and fixing a mistake. I once heard a student remind a classmate of something that happened literally years ago. I remember back in 3rd grade when you said my backpack was ugly.

To recap, making mistakes is okay, if not expected. We’re only human. High-schoolers are budding adults, so learning to ‘admit it, fix it, and move on’ is going to be a useful skill in their transition to the adult world. It is one of the best coping mechanisms.

Do you have any mistakes that you learned from?

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