Ask a hundred successful people what instances spurred their biggest growth (in any dimension of their lives), and I’d wager most of their stories will fall under the umbrella of “mistakes.” And the bigger the flub, you’ll find, the more they learned from their mistakes and the more benefit they probably received in the long term.
Knowing this, you’d think that we’d welcome life’s missteps and failures. We should embrace them as the natural, productive, and highly potent opportunities they are. Not so much. Instead, we live in fear of them, try to circumvent them, and endeavor to hide them after they inevitably happen. It’s too bad really, because in doing so, we cut ourselves off from perhaps our most effective catalysts for change… and success.
The problem is, we define success too narrowly. When we think of success, our minds naturally zero in on the desired endpoint. Success is the ultimate goal, the final, triumphant result of our efforts. While attaining a particular outcome is gratifying, we tend to gloss over the whole process that gets us from initial desire to end result.
Mistakes are an essential part of any transformation. Not only do they underscore the whole fallible humanity we’re working with, but they bust open the entire process of transformation, helping us recommitment to our grand purpose and redirecting us toward more constructive paths. The challenge is to learn to accept the messiness of change—health change, career change, family change, lifestyle change. We can, of course, take a lesson from history here. Life is and has always been trial and error. Human evolution was one massive set of false starts and broken lines with only a few getting through it alive. How’s that for perspective on the five pounds you gained over the holidays or the mediocre performance review at work?
It’s simple really (but not easy). If we can just accept the patchy, errant nature of progress, we have a better chance of using our mistakes to propel us toward success instead of crashing and burning. Here are a few reasons to welcome mistakes.
1. We can learn from mistakes.
Sure, failure stings, but when the pain wears off, we find ourselves more open to feedback from the experience—hence the saying, “There is no failure, only feedback.” Mistakes knock us off our rigid axis, freeing us from the delusion that our old way of doing things was the best way, let alone the only way. Although we may have known this intellectually, mistakes help us absorb this truth very quickly.
If we can avoid getting stuck in the mire of shame or regret, we land in a place of teachability, a place in which we’re more receptive to new influences and perspectives. Maybe we’ve been stuck in a fitness routine that once served us well but that no longer meets our needs, and it took an injury to finally acknowledge it. Maybe we thought that after five years of being gluten free, eating a stack of pancakes wouldn’t be a big deal for our IBS. The feedback makes a grand statement we won’t soon forget.
We become willing to learn, willing to do things a different way. Our brains are even supercharging these efforts, operating from a place of heightened sensitivity. Research shows we have a unique form of memory known as error memory, which helps us perform motor tasks differently following mistakes.1 Likewise, serious food reactions can result in instinctual aversion.
Ideally, we can adopt a mindset that makes the whole blunder feel like a positive move when we put it in context or see how we can use the information to move our health forward. A saying I like is “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Make this your mantra, and be willing to always ask what the lesson is.
2. Mistakes give rise to healthy self-compassion.
In contrast to the stereotypical drill sergeant model of continual butt-kicking, showing ourselves self-compassion is a key motivator to keep progressing toward our goals. Research confirms that compassionate acceptance of our own mistakes enhances our enthusiasm and determination to achieve our goals.2
A junk food binge won’t, in fact, improve your health or help you lose weight—but stressing or abusing yourself over it won’t either. Take the opportunity to offer up compassion and take a nonjudgmental but discerning look at what set the chain in motion and what the real effect was. What did you need that you weren’t getting? What reserves (of patience, of self-care, of rest, of solitude, of activity) were running low? How can you take better care of yourself next time? A bit of kindness goes a long way in making the best of an unfortunate situation and applying it for your benefit in the future.
3. Mistakes free us from sabotaging fears and help us take more positive risks.
It’s amazing how fear can wreak havoc on our health efforts. When we fear a certain outcome (symptom relapse, regaining weight, injuring ourselves, not training adequately for a race, simply not reaching our goal), we give it energy and attention. We become so entranced with trying desperately to tread the edge that we end up falling.
And then it’s done. The thing we feared the most has come to pass, and there’s a certain relief. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such a catastrophe—not our first choice, but not the complete disaster we stressed so much about averting.
The cliche (but still insightful) question goes, “What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?” A better version might be, “What would you attempt if you realized that failure didn’t matter and wouldn’t be the last word?” There’s a certain fearlessness that comes with failing, as in multiple failures, time and time and time again. The more fearless we are, the less inhibited we are, and this opens up major possibilities.
It might seem counterintuitive. What knocks us on our duff is what’s going to help us win the race? With a little resilience, yes.
When we’ve been chugging along in the usual routine, it’s easy to get complacent, easy to check out. Hitting a major snag changes that. We find ourselves in the midst of a panic attack because we’ve let our stress levels skyrocket. We take a spill on the treadmill because we’re overtired from staying up late too many nights. We realize our waistline has crept up because we’re trying to eat the way we did a decade ago when hormonal reality was different.
Suddenly, we’re not operating on autopilot anymore. We have to think once again about what we’re doing. It’s time to be creative and solution-minded, to reinvest and recommit. A mistake can be the spark that lights the fire under us once again.
5. Mistakes move us from an improvement mindset to an expansion mindset.
This is big and maybe the point people most commonly miss. Mistakes keep us nimble and creative, open to a larger picture, focused on expansion rather than perfection. They move us away from a narrow definition of success as “honing a skill to perfection” and into a wider perspective where we define success in terms of “moving in the direction of actualization and fulfillment.”
The mindset shift allows us to view mistakes against the larger backdrop of the vision we have for our lives. This puts mistakes in perspective so we can see that usually they aren’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Any pain they cause is temporary and, ultimately, beneficial if we can learn from them. We become willing to take the “L” to reaffirm the vision and keep pushing forward with building the life we want.
6. Mistakes remind us that it’s all a grand experiment.
Finally, mistakes oblige us to remember that all of our efforts, whatever they come to or don’t come to, are how we meet the game of life each day. The more passionately we play, the more we get out of it. But that invariably means more, not fewer, screw-ups and even some errors of colossal proportion.
What type of life do you want to have?
Thanks for reading today, everyone. Share your thoughts on mistakes, failure, and rebooting below.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.