Have you ever?

Sure. I have made many mistakes. And I still do. Probably daily. This weekend, I forgot to wear sunscreen and, of course, got sunburned. Last week, I accidentally bought the wrong food for my cats, and one of them vomited during a virtual meeting in the background of my screen. I got angry with my husband because he put the washing machine at the wrong degree; I realized I did this myself only afterward. I also drove against the grocery store, with my four weeks old car. And I also said to my mom I hated her when I was a child.

I make many. And although I probably should make less, I also really believe in the lessons learned.

At work, I forgot to reply to a student. I once switched two students’ grades. I mentioned a colleague’s mistake during a meeting with our supervisor, which was not so diplomatic, and I forgot to change dates in a roster. I noticed plagiarism of a student only at the last moment during the thesis defense. I missed a page of feedback of a paper review I received and resubmitted without this being integrated. My first publication contains a wrong number in one of the tables, and one page of my PhD booklet was taken out, and a new one is glued in because it contained the wrong table.

Humz. This makes me turn red and stressed out. I do make many mistakes, I realize… But I am only human.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a car with a flat tire in my street across from my home door. I noticed that the driver and his passenger were a little bit stressed out. The passenger appeared to be pretty pregnant, and when I approached them, I realized that the driver was a former schoolmate of mine. They had an appointment at the ob-gyn and could not make it with the flat tire without a spare one. I offered them my car, with the dent of the grocery store, I mentioned that I am not really attached to the car, and that they could borrow it. The driver told me how he remembers me; when I was about ten years old, I threw a stone against his eye. Accidentally; playing in the garden part of the playground, and I tried to clean this part of the garden out. It hurt like hell; since I cannot control my throwing skills, it landed hard, and he got a blue eye. He still remembers. And it is how he remembers me, which I found even more disturbing.

How could this one event direct individuals’ perceptions of others? Of course, I can think of cognitive mechanisms which cause this. And this makes my next question: how can I change these perceptions? But at the same time, others are allowed to see my mistakes; he now knows that I am really bad at throwing and ball sports, and – more importantly – that I really am human, I believe others can also learn from my learning curve, and may begin to feel safe enough to share their mistakes, from which I can learn too.

Mentally, I started “scanning” my memories of people from my school, at my first job, during my phd, and from the last organization where I worked. When my PhD supervisor asked me to perform analyses, I came with a new idea for a different paper. I wonder whether she knows that I learned from my ‘mistakes’ or flaws.

It also makes me reanalyze how difficult it must be to hire and supervise or manage employees; since everyone makes mistakes, but (minor) mistakes are rarely ever questioned or discussed (sure, this is a sensitive topic). Weaknesses and flaws are asked, and as interviewees, we learn how to transform these into strengths and to not go into detail on our weaknesses during interviews. Who should be chosen? Should we avoid individuals who did mention mistakes? Could we learn from their experiences? Also, when individuals are hired, how can we deal with mistakes? How can we discuss ‘mistakes’? I know it makes us vulnerable, but it also provides us insight in order to grow.

I really believe in studying potential and what made it unravel and what hampered the unravelment. Not to point fingers but to futureproof and turn constructive. Also to share struggles and experiences. Yet, I realize how vulnerable it is to discuss mistakes and how insecure it makes me personally feel. It also triggers feelings of “if I can remember this, others will do too, and how can I show that I’ve learned from them”. But that is probably driven by my tendency for confirmation seeking in others. Learning from mistakes but not lingering on them remains a crucial balance, just like self-doubt and confidence…

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