Remember when advice suggested that, when asked to give our weakness in an interview, we instead offer a strength that we occasionally “overdo?” So we’d say, “My weakness is that sometimes, I’m so committed to my work that I forget to go home!” or “My leadership tendencies sometimes find me helping others when I should be concentrating on my own work.”
It was silly then, and it’s even more so now, this idea that the only weaknesses we have are really strengths gone rogue. The paths of self-improvement and personal growth are essential parts of human life. Growing, learning and claiming our gifts and talents is exciting and should be honored; but so should the unravelings, the failures, the losses and the disappointments.
Life coaches or other “experts” might tell us that we aren’t defined by our mistakes and that only our successes tell the story of who we are so we shouldn’t share the rejections, the hardships, the false starts. By ignoring the shadow sides of our lives, we’re living in denial of our wholeness. We don’t have to hang our failures on ourselves like scarlet letters, but they don’t need to live in shame either. We do not become resilient without adversity. We do not become wise without foolishness, nor does anyone find success without many failures to their name.
We humans take ourselves so seriously. We expect so much so quickly. We’re perfectionists and we give ourselves very little time to ramp up to learning something new or become something different. Meanwhile, we’re missing all the gifts that failure, adversity, losses and rejections can offer.
Even when we move into the realm of spiritual growth, a place that should abound with mystery and exploration, we use words and phrases that connote seriousness to the nth degree: We have to “find our purpose.” We’re on a spiritual “quest.” We are advised to “fake it ‘til we make it.”
In reality, I’ve never seen people more frustrated than when they’re trying to nail down their purpose. Spiritual growth can’t be a quest because there’s no final prize at the end. “Faking it” is just another way of granting ourselves permission to lie about how we feel or where we are. Just look at the number of articles and advice that tell you that happiness hinges on finding your purpose. Tell that to Spot, your dog, who is rolling on the carpet and laughing at your “purpose-driven life.”
Stop and think about it – human life is hilarious. Here we are, running around trying to “be productive” and “master our time.” We read articles on how to “delegate for maximum efficiency.” Meanwhile, the animals and plants of this earth must be looking at us like we’re crazy, like we’re missing the point – and they’d be right. When our lives become about productivity and cramming in as much as possible with no room for human foibles, missteps and wrong calls, we’ve lost the plot on what it means to be a human being.
Once, I was telling a woman that I almost sent an email to the right person but with the wrong company name in the message. She said, “That would be a travesty.” and I said, “That would be hilarious.” at the same time. Which one is true? Would it be a travesty? Or is it bound to happen once in a while because we’re human and our brains are often distracted? No amount of coffee can make up for the glitches that come with being an organic being trying to do and interact with inorganic things.
Life is funny. It’s a trip, a wild ride, an adventure of the soul. No soul came into this human earth thinking, “And I better get it right this time!” Our souls came here seeking the kind of adventure and growth that often goes backward to go forward.
When things go wrong, we can do a few things to take the seriousness down a notch.
One of my biggest mistakes happened in my early 20s. It was an administrative mistake that resulted in redoing all my work and resending it to the client amidst many apologies. It was embarrassing and frustrating. One of my co-workers saw how distressed I was and pulled me aside. She said, “Think about it this way: In 5 years none of this will matter.” The truth is, it didn’t matter in 1 year.
2. Greater self-knowledge
That mistake I mentioned? I made it because I was working too quickly, trying to impress my boss. Lesson learned: stop trying to impress bosses and instead work to impress myself. Our mistakes teach us something about who we are and how we work. If you’re still making the same mistakes now that you made 30 years ago, then that’s funny, too, because that means you’ve gone 30 years without exploring what is available to learn from the mistake. Now, have your laugh, and get on with realizing the lesson.
3. See it as an alchemist would
If you were an alchemist and your job was to turn lead into gold, would you try pounding on the lead to force it to shine like gold? Of course not! You’d melt it down and then see what other ways you could combine the primary material to make something new. The purpose of a “meltdown” is to turn what’s “lead” in you into “gold.” Don’t ignore these potent times in life.
4. Life isn’t a contest
There are no prizes or rewards for the fewest mistakes at the end of life. As Maya Angelou said, people will “never forget how you made them feel.” Healthy relationships, joy, experience and laughter – these are the gems of life, not how seriously you took your work.
5. Use mistakes as a way to connect
There’s nothing better than being around someone who is willing to talk about their mistakes in a fun light. Sharing the struggles of life rather than trying to present a perfect face helps foster connection; and besides, a little self-deprecation is good for you!
I know some things that go wrong really aren’t funny, but I’m not concerned about our ability to take something seriously that needs urgent attention. Instead, I’m hoping we can break our habit of taking ourselves so seriously all of the time over such little nothings. The things that go wrong in your life have value, because they help create the bigger picture of who you are. Give yourself a break and remember that being able to laugh at ourselves is truly medicine for the soul!