How to Learn from Mistakes

Mistake. Does the word make you cringe? Do you berate yourself when you make one? "The word 'mistake' has a negative connotation, but it doesn't have to," says Peg Baim, R.N., N.P., clinical director for the center of training at the Mind/Body Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "Often, successful people got there because they made a lot of mistakes, but their attitude was that everything is useful."

With the right perspective, you can call almost any mistake a learning experience. First, acknowledge what has transpired. Perhaps you acted impulsively and things unraveled from there, or you compounded a mistake by ignoring it. Once you've identified the error, determine how you can learn from it. "If you really try, you can find a proactive way to turn the situation into something positive," Baim says. Here, three women share how they emerged from their missteps stronger and wiser.

Wishful thinking

Many of us have entered situations hoping they'll turn out better than reason might indicate. When Amy Sanders (not her real name), 26, convinced her boyfriend to move in with her, she told herself that living together would bring them closer to a long-term commitment. "I was elated that he agreed to live with me, despite his protestations that he wasn't ready," Sanders says. Eventually, the couple, who were working and living together, found that spending so much time with each other took its toll. Sanders was devastated when the relationship ended, but says, "In time, I realized you can't push anyone into doing something they're not ready for. I also learned that living alone is very empowering. I've become independent, and a lot more based in reality."

Impulsive action

Sometimes, desperate situations drive us to leap before we look. "I'd been working in the same job for 11 years, and had stopped growing. The moment a new opportunity came along, I took it," says Diane Speros, 36. "I was so dazzled by the prospect of leaving the job I'd been in for years, I didn't even consider what my new position would entail." Speros was soon doing even less-stimulating work than before. "After three months, I was miserable," she says. "Although my self-esteem and confidence in my judgment were rattled, I decided to stop beating myself up and get on with my life. So I left that job -- even though I had nowhere to go." What did Speros learn from the experience? "I took my time and didn't accept a job until I knew it was the right one. Now, I'm working in a position I love," she says, "and I tend to look at things very carefully before I take them on."

Gross negligence

Many of us have found ourselves in trouble because we didn't think. That's what happened to Shannon Frost, 36, when she neglected to pay her taxes for two years. "I had just gotten a divorce, and my ex-husband always took care of the finances," she says. "After we split up, I stuck my head in the sand. Big mistake." Uncle Sam caught up with Frost, and she was forced to pay a lot of money to the Internal Revenue Service -- with penalties and interest. "On the upside, I realized how bad I am with money, so I hired a business manager to help get me out of debt and rebuild my credit," Frost says. "Now, not only have I learned to budget -- I also know to ask for help when I need it. Rather than ignoring problems, I now face them head-on and solve them."

As Baim says, missteps don't have to defeat or minimize us. "It takes a lot of energy to keep trying," she says. "But if you have a fundamental belief that things will work out, these experiences can actually give you power -- and a great deal of depth."

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