Some mistakes teach, and some can kill you. The challenge is to know one from the other.
We all make mistakes. It’s part of our untidy human condition. The interesting question is how to reduce the severity of the mistakes we make, and how to deal with them when they happen. Making the right mistakes means that we learn and grow. The wrong mistakes put a permanent damper on our future.
The idea came from watching my sons growing up, and becoming increasingly independent. We have been fortunate to remain able to converse about much of what goes on in our lives, partly because we established a tradition of dinner-time conversations that has become an important part of our everyday experience. Open conversations maintain a sense of relationship, and a recognition of each other’s value. One of these conversations was about being able to recognize the difference between minor and major mistakes. A minor mistake is one from which you can recover. Maybe it takes an apology, some body shop work, or dealing with missed homework deadlines. These are very different from mistakes that have a long term impact. Allowing an addiction to develop, causing permanent damage to yourself or to others, becoming a parent too early, acquiring a criminal record – these are mistakes that can haunt you for the rest of your life. These are the ones to avoid.
It may sound simple, but it’s not, because sometimes small mistakes lead to big ones. At a Friday beer bash some years ago, a colleague’s wife took his keys away because he was too drunk to drive. He was driven home by another colleague, also drunk, who rolled his convertible on the freeway. He was in hospital for two years, and ended up with permanent brain damage. This was so nearly not a mistake! He didn’t drive home. But he didn’t have the judgement to pick the right person to take him home, and the result was the wrong kind of mistake, and the wrong kind of consequence.
In order to really take this distinction on board, we need to have a sense of the value of our future. I remember as a teenager feeling very stressed about life, and sometimes not knowing how to get through the day. But I always believed in the possibility of a better future, and this literally kept me alive.
In order to distinguish between small, inconsequential mistakes, and those that can lead to real trouble, we need to use our imagination, and to connect the dots from action to consequence. This, as parents are frequently told by the child development pundits, relies on an undeveloped part of the teenage brain. Perhaps the best advice for teenagers is to be conscious of whether or not their situation is likely to create the opportunity for bad mistakes, or if it’s a safe place to have fun and maybe indulge in some small-time foolishness. Friends who care for each other can help keep each other safe.
For the rest of us, big mistakes are easier to avoid if we remember how much the world has yet to offer, and how much we love those who support us and have fun with us. Forgetting those things is a mistake that can really hurt.