Recognize Why

I’m going to get straight to the point: today’s topic is going to be about getting over mistakes.

For the sake of keeping myself from going insane, I’m going to split this topic into two posts that are ultimately going to be addressing these two questions:

  1. Why is it so hard to get over certain mistakes?
  2. How do we get over mistakes?

This post will be focused on the first one.

To begin, I’m going to define two circumstances that are crucial to explaining why some mistakes are harder to get over than others, and at the end of the post, I’m also going to include a special little formula I came up with.

Okay, so, all human interactions occur in one of two ways: publicly or privately. Public interactions include at least one other person besides yourself. It could one or three hundred people, and it could be anything from conversing with a friend to delivering a graduation speech. Private interactions, as you may have intuitively guessed, occur when you are (forever) alone.

Outlining these two situations is important because in each circumstance, there are psychological phenomena at play that affect the way we think. And these phenomena explain a lot about our behavior and the emotions we feel during those moments.

So, we arrive at our first question:

WHY is it so hard to get over certain mistakes?

There are two types of mistakes we make: specific and fundamental ones. I don’t think I’m skilled enough to give an ambiguous but also comprehensive definition of what I’m trying to say, so I’m instead going to opt for an example and hope my message gets through.

A math test.

A specific mistake would be forgetting to put a negative in your final answer, or messing up on a calculation even though you were doing the problem correctly with the right method. Things like that are small mistakes, with the understanding that you knew the material, but unfortunately messed up with the execution.

An example of a fundamental mistake would be messing up on that math test because you were not prepared; you didn’t fully understand the material, you didn’t do enough practice problems, you felt pressured by the difficulty of the problems and the tight time constraints because you weren’t used to it. These sorts of mistakes seem like they would be the ones that we care about more. And to an extent, that’s not completely wrong.

But surprisingly, between these two kinds of mistakes, it is usually the specific ones that cause us to lose sleep at night thinking that we’re dumb idiots with two functioning brain cells, not the fundamental ones.

The simple reason is because we very rarely make fundamental mistakes that we don’t understand.

Does that make sense?

Like in the math test example, I think that if most people found themselves in that situation of failing the test because they didn’t study well enough, they would understand why they did so bad, and take the blame for not thoroughly studying and get over the whole situation soon.

I mean, they’d still be upset — just because they understand that they made a fundamental mistake doesn’t mean that they can’t be mad about it — but they know what they did wrong and there is a path for them to improve for next time.

There is an exception, however. We make a lot of fundamental mistakes when we learn a new skill, or adjust to a new environment. For example, when I was transitioning to play varsity basketball during the summer of my freshman year, one mistake I made at the beginning, among many other things, was not back cutting (drawing the defender one way and then quickly going back the other way to receive a pass). And that was a fundamental mistake, because I didn’t understand the importance of doing it and because I hadn’t really done it much before.

In cases like that, where we aren’t familiar with the basics of what we’re doing, we get over those fundamental mistakes pretty quickly. Even though I got mildly frustrated at myself for not picking up on when and how to effectively back cut the first few times I tried, I internally understood that this was a relatively new technique for me and that it would take some trial and error before I could master it.

After I started getting a good feel for how to back cut, it then came down to the specifics: the timing, the speed, the microspacing. Nowadays, whenever I botch a back cut, it’s probably not because I don’t understand why I need to do it in a certain situation, but more so because I messed up the execution.

To recap: fundamental mistakes generally occur when we learn new ideas, new techniques, or when we adjust to new circumstances. We get over them fairly easily because we understand what we did wrong; however, that doesn’t just mean that we won’t get upset when we make them.

All of this discussion intuitively begs the question:

What the hell is up with specific mistakes?

I mentioned with fundamental mistakes that although they still stir up feelings of anger or sadness, they are very understandable and not too bad to recover from, especially if we make them in the process of learning something new.

But with specific mistakes, there is that looming feeling of failure and hopelessness, that desperate wanting to know why how we could have possibly made such an easily avoidable mistake.

Circumstance and cognitive biases are at fault here. Of course, there are a countless number of cognitive biases in the world, but these are three really big ones that pertain to what I’m talking about here:

  • Spotlight effect: People tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are; especially prevalent when one feels out of their comfort zone.
  • Illusion of transparency: People tend to overestimate the ability to which their personal mental state is known by others.
  • Egocentrism: The inability to shift perspectives to others, believing that we are the center of attention.

These biases go hand in hand…in hand with each other. For example, I did speech and debate for about a year, and my first ever tournament was an unforgettable experience that I would like to share with you all, especially because it covers the three cognitive biases mentioned above.

At the tournament, I was put in a small group of maybe six or seven other fellow speakers, and we took turns giving our speeches. When it was my turn to speak, I became increasingly certain that everyone was catching all of the mistakes I was making (spotlight effect) and that everyone could tell how anxious and woefully unprepared I felt (illusion of transparency).

I mistimed hand gestures, forgot way too many lines, and worst of all, almost didn’t say the dumb pun I had spent an excessive amount of time practicing. Especially because it was my first time at a speech and debate tournament, I assumed that everyone saw those detailed mistakes.

When it was over, I begrudgingly sat back down in my seat, feeling miserable and embarrassed in my outlandish burgundy blazer that was way too small.

The thought never occurred to me that maybe everyone else was too preoccupied with preparing for their own speech and worrying about how they thought others would view them—which is what I was doing—to even worry about me! (I think you get the pattern, but is an example of egocentrism)

Granted, it was my first time at a speech and debate tournament, so you wouldn’t be wrong to say that these are fundamental mistakes due to my lack of experience. But these biases hold true across the board. It’s just that their effects are further exacerbated as specific mistakes.

These three biases only occur in the presence of others, so what about in private settings, when we are by ourselves?

That’s an easy answer: self doubt.

I don’t think that I need to make much commentary on the topic of self-doubt, but I will say that self doubt is especially lethal when we are doing something that we feel comfortable with. That’s when it hurts the most; I truly believe that it’s easier to get over self doubt with things we are new to rather than with things we are good at.

However, these cognitive biases only tell us so much. They may explain some of the reasoning behind the why aspect, but not the full extent of it. If I were you, reader, I would not be satisfied with the provided answer. And I don’t blame you.

You want to know, if I may, the fundamental reason why forgetting to put a negative sign on a math test that won’t matter in a few years hurts so bad, or why it’s so hard to get over changing an originally correct answer on a biology test.

Which is why we have to go a layer deeper to reveal the answers behind the intense emotions we feel. We have to inspect your core values.

Your core values consist of years’ worth of developed habits, skills, and self identities. They’re things that we have invested most of our time and energy into, and consequently, matter so much to us. We care about them, and when they are suddenly threatened, in one way or the other, we lash out and become defensive or sheltered.

For example, some of my core values include things like basketball, education, self-reflection, keeping things light, and being a good friend. I also pride myself on being a good writer and having an easygoing personality and a good sense of humor.

So that’s why when I make a bad pass during basketball practice and end up turning it over, I still get visibly upset and internally frustrated with myself.

Even though I know that the spotlight effect exists, and even though I know that my coach isn’t just going to completely cut ties with me because I messed up this time, and even though I know that one bad pass really doesn’t matter in the long run, that mistake, as trivial as it is, resonates deep within my soul because that withstanding belief and standard I set for myself as a good decision maker has now been challenged.

Then self doubt kicks in. I know that I have consistently been a smart basketball player, but after that play, am I really though? Come to think of it, I haven’t been playing that well recently, so maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was. After all, it is better to stay humble, I guess…

Furthermore, because I’ve invested my blood, sweat, and tears into basketball for years on end, I’ve developed a passion for the sport, so every little mistake feels like it has big repercussions.

Thus, the specific mistakes we make that affect our core values are the ones that are the hardest to get over, and the ones that hurt the most.


The Formula That You All Forgot About

At the beginning of the post, I mentioned a formula that I came up with, and it will be the final point of discussion for today. Because I’m stalling for time and have run out of ideas and patience in general I will be going into more depth in the next post, I will only be introducing this formula and what it means. Here it is:

How much you care +  How significant you perceive your mistake to be = How hard it is for you to get over it.

Look, I know that this is no perfect formula by any means. You aren’t meant to substitute numerical values into the two variables and the output value would be meaningless even if you did.

Instead, the metric I am going to use is either “a little” or a “lot”. By doing this, we now end up with only four possibilities:

  1. A Lot + A Lot = Very Hard
  2. A Lot + A Little = Hard
  3. A Little + A Lot = Hard (Yes, I know that the commutative property exists. Cut me some slack.)
  4. A Little + A Little = Very Easy

Note: Due to the nature of the types of mistakes we are talking about here, we can basically disregard the fourth possibility.

The first variable, how much you care, means how much you care about the subject surrounding the mistake at its very roots.  

You need to be careful in how you consider how much you care about a mistake at its basis. If I fail a chemistry test, do I care because I’m upset about my understanding of the subject, or am I upset because it hurts my grade? (it’s the latter)

Your care might also be two-fold. In that chemistry example, if I cared about my understanding of the subject, I would likely also be upset that it hurts my grade.

Or let’s say that perhaps not too long ago I hypothetically almost crashed into a car while merging lanes on the highway because I may or may not have forgotten to look at my rear-view and wing mirrors and also may or may not have signaled long enough. I would care about that mistake because 1. It would hypothetically concern my personal safety as well as my father’s safety, who may or may not have been warning me to be careful, and 2. I would like to have a driver’s license sometime in my life.

Of course, that’s an extremely foolhardy and preposterous mistake that only some casual unlike myself would ever make.

The second variable, how significant you perceive your mistake to be, is more focused on only the mistake.

Again, referring back to the chemistry test, I fundamentally care about that mistake because it hurts my grade, but I also care a lot about the more specific mistake of not being clear about the concepts I learned. If I perceive that mistake to be a very big one, then that, coupled with the fact that I care a lot about my grades, would put me at the first possibility: A Lot + A Lot = Very Hard.

I’m going to stop here for now, and leave the rest for the next post, where I will be breaking down how to get over these mistakes.

Part 2 can be found here.

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