I once made a mistake which cost Nokia many, many thousands of euros. Ok, they were at their peak at that time, so maybe that wasn’t what brought them down. However, my face still turns bright red, my chest feels like someone parked a bulldozer on it, and my heart starts pounding like a raged bull just thinking about it.
At that time, I was a student and had been fortunate enough to land a summer job at Nokia’s corporate finance-department. Working in their back-office, my duties consisted mainly of checking currency transactions and running to the dealers if I noticed a mistake they or the bank had made. Easy, mundane tasks once you got into the flow.
Then my colleague went on a summer break, and I got to do the actual currency transfers. It was scary at first, having the power over transferring millions of different currencies, but soon it became a Monopoly-like, fun routine. Until I came across a certain kind of deal that my colleague had especially pointed out to me. Those deals were rare, and the one thing that you should “under no circumstance do” was to tick a tiny little box on the peace of paper which was back then used to certify the deals.
Life lesson number #1: If you are given specific instructions and there is only one right answer, do NOT start to think, just act!
But what did I do? Yes, exactly, I started thinking. Wondering. Not understanding the logic. I don’t even remember what the box was about, but reading the headline I remember thinking that it didn’t make any sense not to tick it. It did make sense, however, to put that tiny little cross there. And so I did…
The bank fined us with a juicy amount of money (the exact sum is deeply pushed into my subconscious mind, where all traumatic memories safely hide, but the zeros behind a number keep on dancing into consciousness every now and then).
Life lesson number #2: Give credit to all the amazing bosses who strengthen you in dire times – and even more so, when dire times touch them, as well!
I probably would have been totally crushed had not the reaction from my boss been short of amazing. She just listened to me, looked at me with kind eyes (I sooo need to learn that when addressing unwanted behaviour from my kids), and said: “That can happen to anyone. Next time you’ll know better.” And that was it. She never mentioned it again.
Her reaction helped me to put that mistake behind me (apart from some flashbacks every now and then) and focus on my job – and actually putting my whole soul into it, as long as it lasted. (I sure hope that you are reading this blog, Anne, since I’ve only thanked you in my mind. Thank you, kiitos!)
Mastering mistakes is one issue that pops up regularly in my clients’ lives, whether we are talking about leaders pondering about their decisions or athletes wrestling with the thought of mistakes.
Reprogramming your broken record
It’s actually funny if you think about it. As researchers have pinpointed, we have on average 60 000 thoughts raving around in our minds during one day. However, most of them are repetitive, so most of the day it’s like watching an autoplay of broken records and videos.
The crux comes here: When asking people how often they estimate thinking about an uncomfortable mistake they’ve made, most of them say “at least 10% of the time”, some estimate their percentage even higher. Doing the math, this means that they are more or less consciously repeating that one mistake over and over and over again at least 6 000 times daily.
You may think: “Ok, that sounds like a waist of thinking resources, but so what?”
The thing about mistakes which have managed to creep under our skin is that they evoke the same kind of emotions that we felt when actually making the mistake. It’s not just thinking about the mistake, but actually re-living it. And what we know about studies in the powers of effective imagery or visualization is that when you can imagine yourself in a situation AND actually feel the emotions and sensations present in that situation, the same nerves and muscles in your body get activated as in the actual situation.
This is the awesome power of effective imagery which has allowed many athletes to boost their skills and self-confidence by adding mental training on their home couch to their physical exercise routines.
What I have noticed, however, is that most of our time we actually tend to practice our mistakes with that same vigour and effectiveness. Quoting some character in Star Wars (or it might be from some other series in that genre): “What would happen if you used your forces for good instead?”
Four steps to mastering your mistakes
So, just as a mindgame – and a challenge I’ve given myself – whenever a mistake (past or imagined future) pops up in the mind, here are a few steps you can practice doing:
- 1. Stop.
- 2. Look at it. Do not push it away. Embrace it. Be kind to yourself. Accept that it has happened (or that the image and fear is present of making a mistake). Put the light fully on it.
The demons in our minds have power over us only, when they are left in the dark, holding their fear-evoking party going. Look at it with curiosity and distance. If there is a chance of adding humour, by all means, knock yourself out.
- 3. Then figure out what you want to do with it – or not do.
Do you want to examine it now, gather all the wisdom and learning from it? Or later, if now is not the time? In that case, park it and make a mental note when you will return to examining it.
Or if it suits you better, in your mind, crunch it like a messy paper and throw it in an imagined trashcan. Or put it carefully in an imagined treasure box and cherish the learning like it represented the crown jewels.
My brother actually wrote about an experience he wanted to forget about – a football youth championship tournament he was not happy about – on an actual peace of paper. He put it into an empty bottle, took a rowing-boat out to sea at our summer cottage and released the bottle far away from the shore in the water. (Thinking back, not the most environmentally friendly technique, so you might consider doing that one only in your mind.)
- 4. And finally, imagine WHAT YOU WILL DO AND HOW IT WILL FEEL if you encounter a similar situation again.
Relive it in your mind, make it as real as possible, but replace your behaviour or performance so that it will lead to a better result.
Notice that you are not reliving your mistake, or changing it, but preparing for the future. This will give your brain clear, positive instructions on what to do the next time when you are in a similar situation. It will also offer you a more resourceful reminder and focus point when your mistake pops up in your mind the next time. (Yeah, sorry, we are not getting rid of those memories entirely here. That one is called dementia.)
At times, you can even do this in the middle of a performance situation. Like the striker who imagined himself scoring with every fibre of his body, when just blowing a “sure” chance.
Like the leader who just let her temper get the better of her in the team meeting, and once alone – in addition of going through the steps of remedy actions – imagined herself the next time being quiet, breathing deeply and excusing herself for a moment’s regrouping outside the meeting door.
Or the parent, in his mind changing a distressed reply to his 3-year-old with presence and awareness.
This topic of mastering mistakes is so juicy I have to explore it a bit further in my next blog. In the meantime, what’s your box you wish to “untick”?
I wish you interesting moments with sharpening that jedi sword of yours aimed at mastering mistakes and using the powers of your imaginative mind for your own good – and that of others. (Sorry, my mind got a bit carried away when taking Star Wars on board…)
Wishing you Masterful & Merciful Moments when Befriending “Mistakes”,
Christina Forssell is a certified leadership coach (PCC) and mental trainer who gets inspired by people who have the courage to flourish and who wish to catalyse others to thrive.