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

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

Except, I didn’t know.

Over the hour-long class, the pain persisted and movement proved difficult.

The sensei, or teacher, tended my knotty injury with a cold compress. “By not being up on your toes, your shin and calf overextended,” he explained. My mistake cost me a lot of pain – literally.

He told me to keep practicing because, “You’ll need to demonstrate this on your test; remember this is a martial art.” Sensei said it more than once, four times, in fact. Between his words and my pain, I got the point.

At first, I didn’t believe that such a simple mistake could result in such pain.

Then, I became irritated at myself for not getting it right, this simple move. I silently called myself a wimp. I found myself blaming my partner and sensei too. Why didn’t they tell me?!

On reflection, I ultimately agreed with 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 didn’t ‘know better,’ I still made the mistake – it was my mistake, my responsibility. 

 

Mistakes as Great Teachers

Mistakes are great teachers, though we don’t typically like to admit this, particularly if we believe we have good intentions.

Admitting to mistakes makes us feel bad. Our self-esteem gets shaken, anxieties and doubts arise. We often wonder where we stand. We can feel vulnerable, threatened and even unsafe.

For me, I didn’t want to look foolish on the mat. I wanted immediate, positive results. I was secretly afraid that I couldn’t learn, that perhaps I didn’t have the right stuff after all, with my newly emerging identity as an aikidoist at stake.

The longer we focus on a mistake by either denying it, rationalizing it away, wallowing in the discomfort, or attempting to blame it on someone or something else, the longer we feel bad.

Consider that conversation you avoided too long, or simply never had, when it could’ve been a game changer (yes, go ahead and remember it here, notice your responses).

Or, recall that impulsive decision to say ‘yes’ without examining all the details first. (did it create anger, disappointment, or resentment?)

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).

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 paltry 2 to 3% of failures were truly blameworthy, while anywhere between 70-90% were treated as blameworthy.

Indeed, some mishap had occurred, though not out of scheming or malice, yet these errors were most often 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. No wonder it’s hard to admit our mistakes!

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