A few years ago, I made the decision to give a veterinary surgeon permission to perform a potentially life-saving procedure on my horse. The decision had to be made quickly because she had colicked and was in pain from what we learned later was an impaction in her intestines.


I knew the chances of success were not great, but I decided to roll the dice. I loved her with all my heart and selfishly wanted her to stay part of my life.


She didn’t survive. Not only was I heartbroken, but she was not insured. The tab: $10,000.

 

It was a mistake. In fact, a colossal one. I put her through trauma that she didn’t deserve all for my own needs.

 

Yes, there were odds she would make it. Many horses do, but given her age, 13, and medical history, the vet should have advised me not to do it. He didn’t. And I made a decision based purely on emotion. I’m not blaming the vet. It’s his business to save lives. I blame myself for being selfish.

 

I chewed on this mistake for a long time. Although I still wince when I think about it, believe it or not, I have accepted it.

 

I own it. I know that I made a mistake. I acknowledge it. I understand why I made the choice and know that I will never make that kind of bad decision again.

 

Importantly, I have also forgiven myself for it.

 

We all make mistakes. I have called someone by the wrong name in a business meeting. I have accepted a work assignment that I didn’t do my best work on because I had too much else on my plate, but didn’t know how to say no. I have driven the wrong way down a one-way street. I have forgotten the birthday of someone close to me.

 

You have probably made similar missteps big and small and survived.

 

You live through it. You learn from it, hopefully. The key is that you can’t feel guilty and dwell on it, or it festers. It takes a toll on you.

 

Making mistakes is part of life. We take risks. We make leaps of faith. Or we simply flub up because we aren’t paying attention, or our brains freeze, or we’re too caught up in our own heads.

 

The true lesson I’ve found through my own personal and professional life and talking to experts from career coaches to psychologists is that it’s how you handle that gaffe, even the tiny embarrassing ones, when it happens and in the seconds and minutes and days afterwards, that make a difference in your ability to learn from it.

 

You say you’re sorry. You concede you screwed up, even if the only one who you have to admit it to is yourself, and get on with it. People will forgive you.

 

Importantly, give yourself permission to make mistakes. That’s humanity. Oscar Wilde, the playwright, once said: “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

 

You can’t live your life by trying to avoid mistakes. Instead of ducking new challenges on the job, or in life because you’re afraid of making a mistake or failing, shift your thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that—and I’ll learn by doing it.”

 

Kerry Hannon is unaffiliated with TIAA, College Retirement Equities Fund, and their affiliates and subsidiaries (collectively TIAA), and TIAA makes no representations regarding the accuracy or completeness of any information made available by her. Hannon’s statements are solely her own and are not endorsed or recommended by TIAA.

 

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