Mistakes. Learning from Mistakes and Moving Forward
Getting real about getting older
Linda K. Stroh, PhD
Karen K. Brees, PhD
Some people seem to learn from their mistakes more than others, whether the lessons are in raising a family, making career decisions, or aging successfully. Those who learn from mistakes live happier, more stable lives compared to those who are unable to apply what they’ve learned from their own and others’ experiences.
Professionals have debated why some people learn from their bad decisions and others don’t. What they have determined is that those of us with healthy brains have a signal that lights up and becomes stronger when we have to make a decision that could lead us in different directions. This signal alerts us that we are about to make a mistake and, hopefully, alters our course of behavior. Those capable of learning from mistakes have a healthy neurological setting that signals them at the appropriate time; thus, they struggle less with impulse control than do those with a malfunctioning signal, and they can reverse negative behaviors in the face of more and better information.
WORLD WITHOUT INTERNET
In the past, people turned to their elders for advice on how to solve a problem. There was no Google, Siri, Alexa, Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, or Funk & Wagnalls. There were just elders who could offer help. While most of our respondents wouldn’t consider themselves experts on living or aging, some nearly one thousand people who replied to our questionnaires, answered our interview questions, or participated in discussion groups did offer life lessons or words of wisdom based on their extensive experiences. Their comments can reassure us that our experiences and the mistakes we’ve made throughout our lives are more common than we may have realized. We’re never too old to learn from our missteps, forgive ourselves for bad decisions in the past, and pass on to others what we’ve learned.
WE’RE NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN AND MOVE ON
Scientists tell us that our responses to our mistakes or negative actions are often a function of what we were taught about making mistakes as children. Did our parents or caregivers teach us that mistakes are something to be ashamed of or that they were simply an opportunity to learn and grow? In the best of worlds, we would have been taught that none of us are perfect, that we can learn from our mistakes, and that our parents/caregivers will still love us.
If we don’t recognize or admit our mistakes, or observe the mistakes of others, we won’t learn from them, and we will be doomed to repeat them. If we can admit our mistakes, take responsibility for them, and change our behavior, those around us are likely to give us greater respect.
This doesn’t mean that mistakes do not have consequences. Rather, our mistakes and the mistakes of others can teach us how to behave differently in the future. Mistakes are an ordinary part of life and, handled well, can imbue us with a greater sense of self-confidence and serenity.
CHANGING YOUR BEHAVIOR
You may know people who are fully aware that they engage in negative behavior, often for extended periods of time, potentially harming themselves and others. You may even be one of these people. We hope that, even if you’re resistant to changing your behavior, you’ll find the following comments and suggestions helpful:
1. Popular lore says it takes anywhere from three weeks to three months to create a new habit. We think it takes only three seconds to fall back into your default when confronted with a challenging situation. Your defaults are the habits or actions you resort to when a situation is difficult or stressful. They can be positive or negative. What are your defaults? Are they working for or against you? If they are working for you, great. If not, maybe it’s time to change them. The first step is to be aware of what your defaults are—which ones are you satisfied with, and which ones would you like to make more effective? Maybe your default is being untruthful during highly charged, uncomfortable conversations. Or maybe you drink too much or overeat as a reaction to stress or crises. Whatever your defaults, they’re strong predictors of future behavior. Once you recognize them, you can begin the process of changing them.
2. Your mistakes or the mistakes of others can help you recognize that you need to better align who you want to be with who you currently are. When you make a mistake, consider it as an opportunity to grow; this is a chance to learn from the experience and change your behavior.
3. Just as an athlete gets better through practice, you also can make fewer mistakes and less serious ones by consciously making an effort to practice learning from them, instead of ignoring or denying them.
4. Just because you make a mistake does not mean you are a mistake or a bad person.
YOU CAN NEVER UNRING A BELL
When asked the lessons they’d learned in their lifetimes, a number of respondents surprised us when they mentioned the importance of telling the truth and maintaining trust in their relationships. Some told about the guilt and shame they felt after lying, others about the pain of being lied to. In both cases, the message, as in the comments below, was that someone who lies reveals a lot about his or her character.
It’s been said that telling the truth is easier than telling a lie. Why? You don’t have to keep track of different stories you’ve told people. The truth is one sentence. A lie is a novel.
TRUTHFULNESS IN YOUR LIFE
Here are some questions to contemplate when considering the importance of truthfulness in your life.
1. Have you ever been told a lie that hurt you so badly that your relationship with the person who told it was changed forever?
2. What could you have done to mend the relationship?
3. Have you ever told a lie that hurt one or more people? What were the circumstances that led to your lying? Do you regret what you did? How might you have handled the situation differently?
WE ALL BECOME OUR PARENTS
Another lesson that emerged concerned our respondents’ relationships with their parents. Some recalled having little to no empathy in middle age for the physical and emotional challenges their aging parents were facing. They’d gained greater appreciation once they themselves were in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and older. Being old, they told us, had probably been more challenging for their parents than their younger selves had realized. Some noted, with sadness, that if they’d known as younger adults what they knew now about the physical and emotional challenges of aging, their relationships with their parents might have been better.
Many really missed their parents and wished they would have spent more time with them. This was a common regret.
Others had come to learn that they’d never really known their parents and wished they’d taken time to get to know them better.
ADAPTING TO THE CHANGES
Adapting to the changes in those you love as they move from one developmental stage to another is difficult. Remember how hard it was when your kids wanted more freedom as they were growing up? It was difficult to adapt. The changes your children are now witnessing in you are probably just as dramatic and difficult for them. They may occasionally show impatience, if not resentment, as a response to these changes. So what should you do? Assuming your children are astute enough to understand what you’re going through, you should be open and honest with them. The following three questions might help you get started.
1. What changes are you experiencing that you could share with your children? What, if any, harm is there in doing so?
2. Are there parts of your life that your children know little or nothing about? Why do you think you’re reluctant to tell them about these experiences?
3. How do you think telling them might change their understanding of who you are?
CHOOSE YOUR PARTNER WISELY
Some research suggests that the divorce rate in the United States is declining, yet it remains high, with more than 40 percent of marriages ending in divorce. Given the high divorce rate, we were not surprised that many of the lessons that respondents said they’d learned concerned betrayal and loss of trust in relationships. Some respondents noted that forming a new relationship after a divorce was worth the challenge of starting over, while many wished they had worked harder on their first marriages. Many realized their second marriages/relationships weren’t perfect either and in some cases were much more difficult than their first. Regardless, respondents agreed that deciding whom they would marry or consider as a partner was one of the biggest decisions they ever made. None of us are perfect, and a good relationship takes work, patience, honesty, and commitment.
TOPIC OF RELATIONSHIPS
In several of our informal discussion groups, the topic of relationships dominated the conversation, and our respondents agreed on the importance of choosing a spouse or partner carefully. Several suggested doing some testing before committing to a relationship. Even in long-lasting marriages, there were some bumps along the way. Some were glad they toughed it out.
Still, others noted that sometimes their second marriages were even more challenging than the ones that had ended.
And, finally, a few admitted the devastating blow that their unfaithfulness had on the marriage.
Serious conflicts are inevitable in any close relationship, including a marriage. And when those conflicts happen, the question often arises whether to stick it out or get a divorce.
SHOULD YOU STAY, OR SHOULD YOU LEAVE?
On one hand, we heard that staying was a mistake, and they would have been better off leaving, especially if the spouse was unfaithful. On the other hand, those who left often wondered what their lives would have been like had they been more patient, worked harder on the relationship, and stayed, even if the spouse or partner was unfaithful. On one thing they agreed: regardless of the decision, dealing with the conflict was always painful, not just for themselves but for everyone involved. The overriding message seemed to be that whatever action people take in a marriage, whether during difficult stretches or day-to-day spats, we should be kind to each other. It’s easier said than done but something for all of us to work toward.
Should you stay, or should you leave? Have you wrestled with this decision? You may find it helpful to consider these questions related to your own life and spouse/partner.
1. Have you ever been tempted to leave your spouse/partner? What made you stay? Do you think you made the right decision?
2. What lessons, if any, did you learn from the experience?
3. What decisions have you made in your marriage or relationship that you regret now that you’re older?
4. How might your life have turned out differently if you’d made a different decision?
LIFE IS HOW WE PERCEIVE IT
Maybe some of you know this story. Once there was a conductor on a train. At each stop, someone would ask him, “What are the people like at the next station?”
The conductor replied, “What were they like where you came from?”
The first traveler said, “They were spiteful, dishonest, and mean.”
The conductor replied, “That’s just how they will be at your stop.”
The next passenger asked the same question. The conductor asked, “How were they where you came from?”
The passenger replied, “They were kind, always looking to help somebody in need.”
The conductor replied, “They are just the same at the next stop.”
The moral of the story, of course, is that our perceptions create our realities. Albert Einstein made a similar observation. One of the most important decisions we make, he said, is whether to believe the universe is friendly or hostile. The quotations below echo this message.
One respondent went so far as to say he’d learned that happiness is something you have control over.
Many of us might want to be like the fellow quoted above, but instead, we are overwhelmed by worry about the future and endlessly replay what could have been. These thoughts can consume us. The danger of wasting time with worrying was another commonly repeated lesson.
CATCH THE CURVEBALLS
As young adults, many of us strived for what we thought would be a perfect life. Not only has our definition of perfect probably changed since then, but also we most likely have come to realize that living a perfect life is impossible and that real life constantly gets in the way of our doing so. We’re thrown lots of curveballs: health problems with ourselves or loved ones, the death of a close friend or family member, career disappointments, unavoidable conflicts in our lives. How well we have adapted can make a big difference in how we face more and perhaps even greater setbacks. Here’s what a few of our respondents had to say about curveballs in their lives.
Consider these questions as you think about the personal characteristics that have helped or hindered you throughout your life.
1. What makes you happy? How has that changed since you’ve gotten older? What were the catalysts that brought about the change?
2. How can you use that knowledge to help you make good choices now?
3. What is your default reaction when you experience change? Resistance? Acceptance? How is that working? Do you need to consider other options?
4. What might you have done differently, given what you want now?
5. Do you think you adapt well to change?
6. What changes in your life would you make if you could make them now?
7. One helpful idea is, at the end of each day, think about what you might do differently if you could live that day over. Write down your thoughts, read them first thing in the morning, and see if this helps you make fewer mistakes the next day.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling shame or guilt about past mistakes. Sadly, there are no do-overs; however, as at other stages of life, we can be kind to ourselves and open to learning from our missteps and bad decisions. We may not be able to be a better child to our parents, but we may be able to be better parents to our adult offspring or better spouses and partners, coworkers, siblings, and friends.
It’s important to never stop learning. In fact, as we get older, we may learn more about ourselves, others, and life in general.
We hope the lessons our respondents have learned are valuable, or at least entertaining, to you and help you live better in your later years. Of one thing we are sure: there are few among us who wouldn’t like to have a few do-overs!