The Err That I Breathe

When I was 20, I never made mistakes. I remember joking with a friend that there was no such thing as a mistake if you had the right attitude. Wrong turn? No it wasn’t, you just wanted to go a different way. Bad date? No, it was a learning experience. Screwed up an exam? Well, yeah, we won’t talk about that.

Turns out we make mistakes all the time. What makes them much worse is when you’re too scared, weak, or foolish to face your mistake, learn from it, and improve your chances of not repeating it. Makes perfect sense, right? Simple common sense.

Right.

Why are we so incredibly awful at doing this? It’s bad enough that we study history and fail to learn from it. How much more inexcusable that we are so unwilling to admit our own screw-ups until the situation has gotten so out of control that the damage is far worse than if we’d just cowboyed up and self-corrected.

“But sometimes I don’t know I’ve screwed up until it’s way too late to correct it.”

That’s absolutely true, Sunshine. Often times we can’t correct the mistakes we’ve made. It’s healthy to feel bad about mistakes, and even healthier to figure out how to avoid those same mistakes in the future. What stops us from learning from our mistakes?

Pride.

It’s that simple. We don’t like to admit our own failures. It hurts. Which goes directly back to when we discussed Confirmation Bias. The reason we look for information that supports what we believe is it feels good to have our beliefs confirmed. And this is exactly what we should not be doing.

To honestly assess our own mistakes, we must first let go of pride in our own decisions. In life we must make decisions, but if evidence presents itself, we must question those decisions candidly and without bias.

I, for instance, am a fiercely loyal person. I feel strong national pride because I understand the fundamental beauty of our system of laws, I feel loyalty to the US military because I served in it, and I am almost insanely dedicated to my alma mater. Oddly, even though I stopped going to Mass years ago, I feel a strong allegiance to the Catholic Church. And I am fully aware that I let this loyalty cloud my judgement when it comes to these things.

For instance, I defended the Church beyond reason when it came to pedophilia in the clergy. Big mistake.

I thought the concept of “brothers in arms” was universally extended to women. Big mistake.

We often make decisions based on our biases. Sometimes these decisions are mistakes. An honest seeker of the truth will set aside their biases when evaluating decisions. Look for information that you might have missed when forming your opinion. Know your biases. When you listen to opinions, ask yourself if that person 1) has actual knowledge of what they saying, 2) has strong bias of their own, and 3) is a reliable objective source.

Ultimately, when you discover you might have erred, consider discussing it with someone who disagrees with you. This is often difficult because our society has become remarkably aggressive and defensive. Do it anyway. Finding a shared truth is more important that proving someone else is wrong. It’s also more important than defending your own pride.

“It is better to be kind than to be right.”
– Attributed to everyone from Buddha to Ben Franklin.

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