With searing pain, eyes teary, my knotted calf screamed out in pain.

At the aikido dojo, practicing a move on my knees, I persisted in sitting back on my haunches not being up on my toes, something all aikido students know as essential for the hamni hantachi move. 

Though I ‘got’ the concept, had practiced it previously, in my enthusiasm and quick response, I simply did not stay up on my toes. And, it cost me—a lot of pain and further practice.

The sensei, our teacher, tended my injury with a cold compress. He continued, ‘By not being up on your toes, your shin and calf overextended.”  And, “you need to demonstrate this on your test; remember this is a martial art.”  He said it more than once; four times in fact.

 At first I didn’t want to believe that such a simple mistake could result in such pain. Then I felt like a wimp and irritated at myself. As the pain persisted and movement proved difficult, I surrendered to sensei’s conclusion:  I had indeed, failed to execute the moves correctly and, as a result, failed in the technique, ultimately injuring myself. I had to face the fact that while I did ‘know’ better I still made the mistake—it was my mistake, my fault.

Failure is a great teacher, though we don’t like to admit this, particularly if we were well-intended in some action that’s important to us.

Consider that conversation you either avoided too long to have or simply didn’t have when it could’ve been helpful (yes, go ahead and remember it here, notice your responses).

Or, recall that impulsive decision to say ‘yes’ without examining all the details first.

Or, reflect on that time your offer (event, project, plan, etc.) turned out to be a bust because you failed to first get good input from your team, coach or trusted advisors (yep, feel that one here too).

Or,  . . . . and the list can go on.

Seems that the longer we focus on the failure by either denying it, rationalizing it away, wallowing in the discomfort, or attempting to blame it on someone else (the technique in my case), the longer we feel bad. And, the more time it takes to realize the gift of the failure.

Yes, I did said gift. Facing into mistakes, failures, is not for the faint of heart, but there is a gift waiting for you.

Amy Edmonson, a professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard, asked executives to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations were truly blameworthy i.e. intentional or deviant.

The answer? A resounding 2-3 %, only 2-3 %, were truly blameworthy while anywhere between 70-90% were treated as blameworthy. Indeed, some mishap had occurred, though not out of scheming or malice, while the errors were treated as such.

We get tied up in painful knots, like the one in my throbbing calf, not only when we think about admitting to our own mistakes, but also when we’re afraid we’ll be blamed for someone else’s mistakes–so we blame them first. Hence the 70-90% of mistakes treated as blameworthy.

Bottom line: we just don’t always know what to do with mistakes. 

Admitting to them makes us feel bad, our self-esteem gets shaken, anxieties and doubts arise, and we wonder where we stand in the face of it all. We feel threatened and unsafe.

What if we could simply turn and face the mistake, the failure? What could we actually learn from it? That’s where the gift lay.

Try this to help you turn and face mistakes:

  1. Notice the pain: My calf pain got my attention; yours could be a missed opportunity, getting passed over, or simply the cold shoulder of a colleague.
  2. Observe feedback from others: My sensei, someone qualified to know, ‘showed’ me my mistake. No, others aren’t always qualified to show us our mistakes, but they will anyway. Simply observe this feedback; it’s not necessarily true (remember the 2-3%).
  3. Allow yourself the full range of reactions as you observe the mistake: I went through denial, self-loathing, anger at myself for ‘knowing’ better, blaming someone or something  (the technique, it was Sunday, etc) as I grappled with the mistake. You’ll have your reactions too so allow them since they’re already happening.
  4. Take a deep breath, turn and face.  Yes, it was my mistake and this is what I’ll do differently next time. What’s your mistake? What will you do differently next time?
  5. Remember what’s important. Aikido is the art of peace, why I love and practice it, but it’s a marital art nonetheless. I aspire to live a fierce and peaceful life. What’s important to you?

Where’s the gift, you ask? 

For me, on the aikido mat, the gift of my mistake focused my attention and toughened me up a bit, increased my resilience—in body and mind–to move into other difficult experiences with greater ease. Next time, I’ll be up on my toes.

Take a look, what’s the gift of your mistakes?