There’s an old saying, “A man who makes a mistake, and fails to admit it, has made two mistakes.”
Part and parcel of integrity is the ability to critically evaluate your own beliefs – and to change those beliefs in accordance with the evidence. That’s easier said than done. What most people actually do is to cherry-pick the evidence to support their previously held beliefs.
There’s huge “social risk” in admitting a mistake: embarrassment, shame, fear of ridicule. But it’s extremely important to be able to do it. Admitting a mistake is an act of courage, and every act of builds more courage.
It’s also important to understand what a “mistake” is.
A mistake is an unintentional error. A blunder that arises from a erroneous belief.
Let’s say you’re adding up a column of numbers and you forget to carry the 1. Despite your best efforts and intentions, the total is inaccurate. That’s a mistake.
Let’s say you’re typing the word “cat” and it comes out “vsy.” Despite your best efforts and intentions, the word spelling is incorrect.
Let’s say you trust someone who turns out to be a consummate liar. Despite your best efforts and intentions in believing them, you find out everything they ever said was false.
It’s very possible -- despite your best efforts and intentions -- to reach an erroneous conclusion when the evidence you have is incorrect or incomplete. Part of your job is to know how to be sure your evidence is correct and complete by asking the right questions --and questioning the answers.
Let me be clear. There’s a big difference between “making a mistake” and doing wrong.
It's not possible to make the same mistake twice. The first time is a mistake. The second time is a choice.
A fellow says, “Yes I’ve made some mistakes in the past.” And then you find out that his “mistakes” were three armed robberies, four forcible rapes and one murder. You know what? Those aren’t “mistakes,” Brother. Those are acts that you knew or should have known were inherently wrong because they did injury to innocent people. The only “mistake” is that you’re not still in prison. Every villain in the world cries “mistake” when he finally gets caught and has to pay the piper. I recall a case in which an individual ran over their spouse with the family car – then backed over the victim and ran over them again – and had the gall to refer to it as an “accident.”
In the law there’s the concept of malum in se – something that is evil in and of itself. Murder, rape, robbery, assault and kidnapping lead the hit parade of mala in se. These things are wrong, they’re always wrong, they’re wrong no matter who does them, not matter who they do it to, or what their reason is --- and everybody knows or should know that. You don’t “accidentally” kidnap someone, or “unintentionally” rob someone, or “innocently” rape someone.
Mistake-making and wrong-doing are two completely different things.
When it comes to mistakes, there’s a six-step process for handling it.
Step One: Admit there’s a mistake. “That’s wrong.”
Step Two: Own the mistake. “Yes, I did that.” No excuses.“
Step Three: Understand the mistake. “How exactly did I go wrong?”
Step Four: Explore the mistake’s damages. “What are the consequences of my error?”
Step Five: Make amends. “What do I have to do to fix this? To whom do I owe an apology – or more.” Whatever it takes to set things right, do it. And do it right away.
Step Six: Learn from the mistake. “How will I avoid making this kind of mistake in the future?”
Some people would suggest a seventh step: moving beyond the mistake or letting go of it -- having done all the above six steps.
“Every man is a product of his own works,’ wrote Cervantes, in Don Quixote. Those works include victories and defeats, triumphs and errors. And some mistakes are worse than others, do more harm than others.
Most people let themselves off the hook quite easily. A fighter doesn’t. A fighter takes responsibility for what he or she does – and carries the responsibility for what he or she has done.
I think you keep your mistakes on a chain around your neck so they jingle like spurs when you walk, and remind you to be careful.
(On this topic, I strongly recommend the brilliant 1986 film, The Mission, starring Robert de Niro.)