Mistakes and Failures: Why it’s important to differentiate

How many times have we looked back at a relatively short period of time (weeks or months) and realized all the things we wronged/failed at and then blamed ourselves for not doing better? I’ve done it many times and every time I’ve felt either miserable or angry.

We often don’t spend the time in differentiating between failures and mistakes and in treating them both as mistakes we lead ourselves on to the path of misery. Seth Godin explains the difference well:

A failure is a project that doesn’t work, an initiative that teaches you something at the same time the outcome doesn’t move you directly closer to your goal.

A mistake is either a failure repeated, doing something for the second time when you should have known better, or a misguided attempt (because of carelessness, selfishness or hubris) that hindsight reminds you is worth avoiding.

Failure is good because there is a lesson at the end of it. We fail and we should learn from those failures so as to not fail again. But when we treat our failures as mistakes, we also inevitably make the mistake of blaming ourselves for all those mistakes. That just ruins all the effort put in to contemplation.

It’s great to have the ability to rush through all that data from the past and cherry-pick that which shows us where we went wrong. We have made great progress because of this ability but only when we’ve also been successful at differentiating failures and mistakes.

(As a side – what makes it hard to do this differentiation is that looking back, of course, we have a lot more data to answer the same questions. A failure might seem like a mistake when it wasn’t at the time.)

No one likes failing or making mistakes but it is definitely easier to deal with the prior than the latter.

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