Everybody makes mistakes. And mistakes can be distressing, producing stress hormones. What can you do about the mistakes you will inevitably make? You might want to avoid taking blame because guilt is upsetting. Or maybe you could think positively about it: "It's not really a mistake, it's an opportunity." But I've found that the least upsetting thing to do is to ask myself three questions: What did I do right? What mistakes did I make? What do I want to do differently next time?
The emphasis on next time allows you to directly confront the fact that you screwed up without a lot of extra bad feelings. The worst feeling you get is a kind of grim determination, which isn't very stress-producing.
Darlene just had an argument with her boyfriend on the phone. She was very angry at the time, but now that she's off the phone, she's starting to regret some of the things she said. Applying this principle, she asks herself the three questions one at a time.
"What did I do right?"
She thinks about it for a minute and comes up with several things. For example, when he told her she was being selfish, even though she was angry and wanted to defend herself, she knew deep down he had a point, so she said, "Yeah, I guess you're right about that." She knew that was the right thing to say. It was good.
Okay, so now she was feeling pretty good about doing some things right. So she turned to the next question.
"What mistakes did I make?"
"I shouldn't have raised my voice," she thought. "I didn't listen to him very well either." These were easier to face after giving herself credit for doing some things right.
Then the last question: "What will I do differently in the future?" Here she thinks about the moments of decision in the conversation. She now has the time to look at her options. She decides on a few things she would like to do differently next time. She imagines herself doing those to see how they might go. Following this method, she has less bad feeling and more improvement over time than she would with any other method.
One possible alternative to doing this is to blame other people or the circumstances. It is their fault. The only problem with this approach is it produces anxiety. Why? Because, if it's their fault, you aren't causing it, which means there is probably nothing you can do to make it better. So you're stuck feeling worried that it will happen again.
When you see your circumstances as controllable — that is, that you have some control over how things go, you have some power to influence it — the less you will worry or obsess about those circumstances. But you become more vulnerable to negative rumination when you feel you don't have much control over how things turn out.
Here is what you need to remember: You have a lot of control over whether or not you feel you have control.
When you squarely look at the part you played in making things go the way they went, you realize you have some control over how things go in the future. This is a relaxing realization. You are not the victim. You have some say over what will happen. A sense of control is more relaxing than the uncertainty of what "life will bring" you. Find out what mistakes you made. Figure out what you'll do differently in the future to make sure it turns out better.
Crane's Big Mistake
Joseph Crane was called to John Patterson's office. Patterson was the owner of National Cash Register (NCR). Cash registers were new on the market at that time, and believe it or not, they weren't going over very well. Patterson had looked through his salesmen's files to discover who was selling the most registers. It was Crane.
Patterson wanted to know, of course, how Crane had been was selling so well when the rest of the salespeople weren't selling squat. Crane explained that some time earlier, after a sales presentation to three potential customers, all three said no. Thinking about it afterwards, he realized that he'd forgotten to mention some important selling points.
Instead of moping, he decided to take advantage of this mistake. He decided he'd never make that mistake again, so he wrote a sales talk that included every single important point, and memorized it. And at every presentation, he recited his sales talk word for word, thus never again failing to mention an important point.
Patterson was impressed by Crane's story and asked him to give his memorized sales talk to a secretary, who wrote it all down. Then Patterson gave it to all his salesmen and made them memorize it. Patterson made it official company policy that any salesperson who was asked to repeat it and couldn't do it off the top of his head was fired on the spot! NCR's sales started increasing and continued for years.
The start of this climb was a mistake: Crane failed to sell three potential customers because he left out important information. We can all look back now and see what wonderful benefits came out of that mistake, not only for Crane, but for the whole company. It's easy to look back and see it. The test is: Can you look forward and see it? Can you look ahead from a state of disappointment and imagine how you could correct your mistakes and what might be the result?
It would have been foolish for Crane to think, "Three clients gone. What a failure I am." Yet that would be a fairly normal, natural response. An unusual response — a response that sets you above normal, a response that will change your attitude and your circumstances for the better — is to commit yourself to responding constructively to mistakes. Commit yourself to using your mistakes rather than simply regretting them.
Every cloud doesn't necessarily have a silver lining — unless you are determined to see that it does. And then every cloud has a silver lining. What you see depends on how you look.
When you feel badly about something you've done, face it squarely. Admit your mistakes. But skip the self-punishment and think through exactly what you want to do differently next time, if there is a next time. This is a sane, calm, productive way to improve your conduct.
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.