For a lot of my life, I felt like I needed to be in control and to avoid making mistakes. I am not sure exactly when I picked up on this idea, but I do know that by the time I was a teenager, the idea was firmly ingrained in my thinking and general outlook on life. The result is that I constantly tried to avoid failing or looking silly, certainly in public, but even my private life.
On the one hand, my fear of failure is understandable. We all like succeeding and looking good, and sometimes when we fail or make mistakes around others, people can be extremely cruel, and they make fun of our weaknesses, humiliating us even further. This feels like they are rubbing salt in an open wound. I have had this happen to me, and I am sure you have, too. I am so sorry you have experienced this. It is a very painful experience.
On the other hand, our fear of failure—and I believe this fear is widespread—can keep us from some of the best and most exhilarating experiences of life. Think of a baby just learning to walk. A baby falls thousands of times before it learns to walk, and yet, it is through falling that babies learn to walk. In fact there is no other way to learn to walk but to fall.
(Lately, I have been learning the gift of mistakes through watercolor painting. This painting gave me the gift of shades of green and mist.)
It is the same way with any valuable thing. It is through the mistakes we make in playing an instrument or a sport that we learn to do these things well and beautifully. It is through the mistakes we learn in friendships that we learn to love people better. It is through mistakes people make in inventing things that inventors perfect and develop innovations that change the world. Mistakes are a pathway to grace, deeper love, and intelligence.
(This painting gave me the gift of sunlight.)
Given how important and beneficial mistakes can be, it is unfortunate that so many of us are terrified of making mistakes. It is understandable, though, why we have this fear. We live in an extremely competitive, result-oriented world, and we are surrounded with media images of polished perfection. In this type of environment, we often receive the message that unless we are the best, flawless, perfect, consummate professionals, there is something deeply wrong with us. This kind of environment breeds self-loathing at the slightest hint of weakness, and it leaves little room for people to learn, to make mistakes, and to grow.
The unfortunate result of this type of thinking is that many of us are afraid to try new things because we are afraid of failing or looking foolish in front of others. I know my fear of failure prevented me from trying many things in the past that would have enriched my life. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), my perfectionistic, controlling outlook on life eventually caused an emotional crisis that forced me to change. (I have written more about that here.)
Through this crisis, I realized that vulnerability, mistakes, and failure are not only a normal part of life; they bring us some of the best and most beautiful things in our life. Increasingly, I have tried to adopt an outlook called Beginner’s Mind. Beginner’s Mind is a concept in Zen Buddhism. It encourages us to approach life with the open mind of a beginner or a baby. When we approach life with Beginner’s Mind, we no longer try to force life to be the way we think it should be. Rather, we embrace life as it is with an open and simple heart, and we learn from each experience. When we have Beginner’s Mind, there really is no such thing as failure. There is just us experiencing each moment of our life and accepting the gifts of all its moments.
(This painting gave me the gift of sunsets.)
I have been practicing Beginner’s Mind lately as I have begun painting watercolor landscapes. I have never taken a watercolor class before, and I do not really know what I am doing much of the time when I paint. I just find photos I like, and I try to paint them. Sometimes I watch watercolor tutorials on Youtube and learn cool tricks. Usually when I finish a watercolor painting, I am filled with both elation and despair. I am always excited by how much I love painting and what I learn, and I sometimes despair about all of my flaws and how much I have yet to learn.
But I learn new things with every painting, and in this way, each painting is a gift. So I try not to worry too much about whether a painting is really good or not, and instead I focus on the gifts each painting gives me—the lessons it teaches me. My new hobby has reminded me of several really valuable things about mistakes and failures:
- With every mistake we make, we have the potential to learn something valuable to make us a better and more loving person.
2. If we are acting with good intentions, we never have to be ashamed of mistakes. Most worthwhile skills and accomplishments cannot be learned without making a lot of mistakes. Almost any artist, writer, inventor, or entrepreneur will tell you this.
(This painting gave me the gift of ocean waves.)
3. If people expect you to be perfect all the time and not make mistakes, they are being immature and unrealistic about the human condition.
4. If you are making mistakes, it is actually a sign that you are doing something right. You are showing up to your life and living it and learning. Congrats to you!
5. Mistakes are pathways to a new and more beautiful us and world. That is really exciting!
(This painting gave me the gift of blending colors.)
If you have been making a lot of mistakes and failing in your life lately, congratulations! It may not feel like it right now, but you are winning, and you can make your life and the world around you more beautiful with everything you are learning. If you are struggling with feeling shame about making mistakes right now, here are some things you can say to yourself that will help:
It’s okay to make mistakes.
I am learning really valuable things through my mistake, and I am grateful.
Mistakes are how we learn and grow.
This mistake is my pathway to brilliance and grace.
I lovingly accept the gifts of this mistake.
I am willing to practice Beginner’s Mind and accept this experience with openness.
Peace to you, Friend. Thank you for your light.