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When You Make a Big Mistake

We are all human, and none of us is flawless.

Have you ever made what felt like a big mistake? Even Albert Einstein and Steven Hawkings made mistakes, so you’re in good company. I also think we all have done things to mitigate or even get away with our mistakes, which isn’t the best answer. Here are some tips to help you deal with the fallout and make the appropriate corrections when you’ve messed up and made a big mistake.

If you make a big mistake, own it.

Having just messed up, I was a whirling dervish of anxiety and defeat. I was so angry at myself that I spent a while contemplating retirement or moving to Australia, and then I got to work on correcting my error.

The simple truth is, I screwed up. I had to admit it and redo my work, and that’s exactly what I did. No big deal. So remember, the next time you make a big mistake, it may not be as bad as you think.

Don’t think that you can get away with it.

Even if no one else knows, you will still think about it. These are the things that run around in our brains, maybe lurking for decades only to eventually resurface. That creates additional anxiety and sleepless nights.

Look, you can’t induce selective amnesia, so you won’t forget about this error, and your efforts in trying to hide it will continue to haunt you—at least until dementia sets in. So admit what happened, and do your best to fix it. Then move on.

Trying to cover up mistakes takes more work than fixing them.

A lot of artists, contractors, and everyday humans are very familiar with this. If the song you wrote is too familiar or the wall you built is lopsided, you may be better off starting over. The do-over will usually take less time than you think and achieves better results.

Don’t opt for the lazy way out. Do it right. You will like yourself and the resolution much better.

Apologize, even though it was unintentional.

Saying you are sorry and are willing to make amends or fix the error makes it easier to get back on track. If the mistake is work-related, at worst, it will cost you some time and perhaps some money, and that’s not so bad. Remember this, and apologize as soon as possible to preserve your position and your self-respect. A Harvard study showed that the vast majority of the time, when a doctor admits to a mistake, even a fatal one, and apologizes to the family, there are few if any repercussions.

Admitting you’ve made a mistake is embarrassing, but also shows your humanity.

If you look at how the world works, those who admit their mistakes and make them right suffer less. This is you taking responsibility for and being wise enough to correct a mistake before it gets any worse. There’s no shame in that.

Go easy on yourself when you make mistakes. I’m sure I will make more, as we human beings do. Sometimes that’s what life is about—going from one mistake to the next as gracefully as possible. The trick is not to beat yourself up, but to fix it and move on.

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