Mistakes Learn Man Repeller
Low Stakes Hot Take: “Learning From Your Mistakes” Is Overrated
08.16.19

Welcome to Low Stakes Hot Take, a regular column wherein one of us shares an impassioned opinion on a seemingly random topic that probably doesn’t matter much. Or—wait—does it?


This is what you need to know: Once, in a work meeting not six weeks into my first job out of college, I addressed my boss as “mom.”

Had there been an option to tear that small, windowless meeting room asunder so that the earth’s molten core could absorb me whole and carry the—by that point—lifeless, formless remnants of my body, now unidentifiable primordial ooze, into the depths of this scorched planet, well, I would have taken it. As it was, no such respite was offered to me by whatever gods exist in this world. I had to sit there around that brainstorming table having called my boss—my enormously respected and successful boss—“mom.”

I was reminded of this, my most humiliating error, when I read a viral Twitter thread this week. You might have seen it: a woman has a phone call with her favorite superior, after which she hangs up and sighs to her colleague, “My crush worsens by the day! Honestly, I can’t tell if I want to be his mistress or his daughter.” I think you can guess what happens next. This poor woman—who has all of my sympathies, so much so that I’m taking sympathies away from other more urgent matters in order to transfer my sympathy surfeit to her—had not, in fact, hung up the telephone. The man she wishes could be her lover and/or, er, father had heard every word she said. Excuse me while I fling myself directly into the sun.

In the immortal words of Mark Harmon on a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope: “Shit happens.”

Mistakes like these, awful and unsettling, happen all the time. They happen because we haven’t hung up the phone properly, or because we’re really tired, or because the senior authority figure doesn’t remind you of your mother, exactly, but she is a woman and she is the boss of you, so. In the immortal words of Mark Harmon on a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope: “Shit happens.”

Back in April, I interviewed a few experts on failure for this very website. I was trying to get to the bottom of how, exactly, we could learn from our setbacks. Most of them said the same thing: That every mistake was a lesson in disguise, and that understanding failure would allow us to succeed in the future. One of them, the author and host of the How To Fail podcast Elizabeth Day, told me that she believed that there was a lesson to be learned in every single mistake. She did caveat this by saying that she speaks from an “extremely privileged perspective” and that she knows that not everyone will agree with her. But she genuinely believes that failure is a thing with indexes, an encyclopedia with diagrams and subheadings and page numbers that can be studied and learned.

But what if learning from your mistakes is just another thing you can screw up?

Sometimes, I find myself agreeing with her. I think about the lessons I learned from being routinely late to lectures (be organized; avoid the coffee shop with the big lines) or from an appalling first date that turned into a much better second one (first impressions aren’t always correct; also who chooses immersive theater for a first date?).

But what if learning from your mistakes is just another thing you can screw up? Looking at it from that perspective, it starts to seem like a tall order. Or one that dovetails a little too nicely with anxiety. I have a bad habit of replaying events over and over in my head, never quite satisfied with how they shook out, even when they shook out objectively well. It’s an anxious tic, a byproduct of that niggling feeling that any imperfection could and should be improved upon, that [extreme Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians voice] I will never be enough. I remember lying in my bed in the… very… early hours of the morning after my friend’s wedding, rewinding the mental tape on my maid of honor speech. It was like I was editing it, as if it were a conversation between myself and my editor about the syntax and the flow and the grammar of all of the anecdotes and emotion I poured into that speech. And to what end?

Sometimes it’s important to remind yourself that mistakes, a little stumble here and there, are a part of life.

There’s value in wanting to improve after making a mistake, but there’s a danger, too. It introduces the pressure of optimization in every aspect of your life, in every detail no matter how small. Of always taking two steps forward after one step back. But I think there’s something to simply wallowing in the disgrace of your failures every now and then. I’m talking about “mom-gate,” yes, and all the other mistakes I’ve made in my life that are just that—stupid, idiot mistakes. Like when I thought the chorus to Gettin’ Jiggy With It went “hit the chicken with it.” Or when I was on holiday and missed the last ferry back from a secluded beach for no reason other than that I was lost in my own thoughts, looking out at the view. (That happened to me this week. This week!)

Making a mistake doesn’t feel good, but pressuring yourself into constant improvement doesn’t feel good, either. Sometimes it’s nice to practice a little self-acceptance. Sometimes it’s important to remind yourself that mistakes, a little stumble here and there, are a part of life. Mistakes are what makes us human. Alexander Pope said that.

Animation by Madeline Montoya.

Get more Brain Massage ?