Are Your Mistakes Defining You… Or Refining You?

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life.  More than I care to admit, actually… and many that I wish I could take back.  And while I wish it wasn’t so, I’m confident that I will make many more mistakes in the years to come.

The most troubling mistakes, the ones that tend to hurt the most, are the mistakes that have a significant, and sometimes, lasting impact on others.  Sadly, I’ve made more than a few of those mistakes along the way.  My mistakes have cost (the companies I worked for) time, money, momentum, and missed opportunities.  My mistakes have hurt the people I worked with, and the people I love.

Let’s face it… we all make mistakes.  It’s just a fact of life that we are going to mess up along the way… in our work, and in our personal lives.  What’s most important is what we do about (and in response to) our mistakes.

I believe we are the sum total of our thoughts, decisions, actions, inactions… our accomplishments, and our mistakes.  Unfortunately, it is human nature to give more thought and importance to negative experiences… especially ones that we feel personally responsible for.  I believe this is why too many people end up feeling defined by their mistakes.

It seems that people who feel defined by their mistakes can’t move past the pain they have caused.  They seem to not only carry that pain with them, they amplify it.  People who feel defined by their mistakes tend to amplify these negative experiences in their lives and undervalue the many positive ones.  Their confidence shrinks as the guilt they carry within them grows.  The end result is a huge toll on both self-esteem and self-worth.

There is another way.

Dr. Christina Hibbert recently shared this distinction between self-esteem and self-worth.  Self-esteem is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves.  Self-worth is recognizing “I am greater than all of those things”.  And for me, therein lies the key.

I do think it’s critically important for us to “own” our mistakes.  Minimizing or dismissing our mistakes may not lead to us defining ourselves by our mistakes… but it may very well lead to others defining us by them… and, by our unwillingness to take responsibility for them.

When we “own” our mistakes, we acknowledge them, take responsibility for them, make efforts to address any damage done as a result of them, and learn from them.  Let’s go a little deeper.

  1. Acknowledge our mistakes. This is tough.. and hugely important.  We build trust with others when they see us clearly admit to our mistakes.  We lose trust (and respect) when we point the finger at others or focus our energy on making excuses.
  2. Take responsibility for our mistakes. Beyond admitting to mistakes, we need to take responsibility for the impact of the mistakes.  Rather than minimizing the impact or looking the other way, we need to lean in.
  3. Address the damage done by our mistakes. Once we understand the impact, we need to move forward in a manner that addresses the problems resulting from our mistakes. Apologies are sometimes enough.  In other cases, we need to make concerted efforts to “right the wrong”.
  4. Learn from our mistakes. Mistakes often present some of the greatest learning opportunities.  It’s important for us to invest the time and energy needed to understand what led to the mistake.
  • Did we miss (or ignore) something?
  • Did we not fully (enough) understand the risks associated with our words or actions?
  • Did we act first… think later?
  • Did we let emotion or pressure (perceived or real) from others unduly influence our decision?

Once we understand what led to the mistake, we have the opportunity to think about how we can prevent a similar mistake in the future.   Beyond that, we may identify ways to handle things that we never considered (and may never have considered) if we had not made the mistake in the first place.

Once we “own” our mistakes… I believe we need to “let go” of them.

I’m not suggesting that we forget our mistakes.  In fact, I don’t think we should.  I do believe it’s important that we not dwell on our mistakes.  By overcoming our natural tendency to focus on the negative, we can shift our focus… not away from the mistake… but beyond it.  We can shift our focus to lessons learned, to personal growth, to new ways of thinking and responding, to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and to new levels of trust built with others.

When we own our mistakes and then choose to focus beyond them, we create the opportunity for our mistakes to refine us… rather than define us.


Ric Leutwyler
Ric Leutwyler
MY work journey has taken me from dishwasher to CEO, from fast food to cloud based technology, from Davenport, Iowa to more than 30 countries around the globe. Along the way I have enjoyed leading, learning, contributing, mentoring, strategizing, innovating and giving back. One important lesson learned along the way is that there are opportunities to make a difference in all aspects of our lives. This has made the journey all the more rewarding.

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