Recognizing Our Own Shortcomings

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of turning inward and honestly judging our own character in a way that is intimate and helped us move our lives forward in a constructive manner.  Throughout his book Meditations he wrote of the importance of being self-aware, and provided notes about being socially responsible by becoming more intentional with our actions, and more honest in our thoughts.  He encouraged himself constantly to be humble and realistic about his abilities and his own faults, careful to never raise himself above other men despite the fact that for 20 years he was one of the most powerful people on the planet. The way that he looked at himself relative to others is summed up well in a quote from Meditations,

 

“When thou art offended at any man’s fault, forthwith turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself; for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. For by attending to this thou wilt quickly forget thy anger, if this consideration is also added, that the man is compelled; for what else could he do? Or, if thou art able, take away from him the compulsion.”

 

The important thing for Aurelius during the times when we see faults with other people is to recognize ways in which we share those faults or ways in which we have similar shortcomings in our own lives.  He encourages us to look inward at our selves rather than to put ourselves on a pedestal above others. When we see the faults in others and are blind to our own failures we limit our growth and build a false sense of exceptionalism in our lives.

 

Aurelius’ quote is similar to a quote I wrote about from Colin Wright in December of last year,

 

“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, ‘How horrible this situation is, and how capable am I of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!’”

 

Aurelius explains the ways in which we can overcome the feeling of outrage that builds in us when we see others acting in a negative way. Their faults can be taken as personal insults or moral failures, and it is far more tempting to become outraged than to recognize that we share the same or similar shortcomings in our own lives. Failing to see our own faults and allowing ourselves to build a sense of outrage gives us the chance to tell ourselves how great we are, how correct our world views have become, and how much better we are than other people in society. It feels great to be outraged and to talk about our superiority over others, but it limits our interaction with other people and prevents our society from being able to join together to become better.

 

As emperor Aurelius had no shortage of opportunities to let himself build on outrage and feelings of superiority, but what he instead reminded himself in Meditations is that he could not place himself above others because in doing so he would become blind to the reality that he and all people make the same mistakes.  He was more focused on using self-awareness and reflection to grow and make the world better than he was on building his fame and influence by denigrating others.  Recognizing our shortcomings and where they come from can help us have conversations with others about the same failures and about ways in which our society encourages (or does not punish) those failures. Avoiding outrage and understanding our errors helps us become more human and helps us connect with others so that they may avoid the same shortcomings in their lives.

Living Without Error

In his writing Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected the ideas of stoicism and the lessons the philosophy taught him throughout his life. He valued the power of the rational mind, and was constantly looking for ways to better understand his own faculties so that he could better control his mental state and his perception of the world.  Through self-awareness and an ability to focus on the present, Aurelius was able to gain power over his mind by taking the control of his thoughts away from other people, objects, and events around him.  In regards to the strength of ones mind and becoming a complete individual, Aurelius wrote, “The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception.  Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things, go straight on, and it has what is its own.”

 

When I first read this quote I left myself a note that I think sums up the idea presented by Aurelius in this quote and throughout his book, Meditations, in a powerful way. “He is not saying that the mind is free from making errors, but that it is free from living with those errors. The rational mind can understand an error and then chose the reaction to that error with which it lives.”  What I was trying to capture in my synopsis of the Emperor’s quote is the idea that the mind and the power of our rational thoughts decide how we will be affected by the mistakes that occur in our life. The mind can chose what will be learned from, what will shape our decisions, and what will be carried with us for the future.  The mind is in control of interpreting events and errors and choosing how they will be folded into the mess of experiences and decisions that make us who we are.

 

What separates Aurelius from other thinkers is his beliefs of what the mind is capable of doing when sorting out the events and histories of our lives.  Unlike today when it is common for us to regard our past mistakes and histories as baggage, Aurelius saw our past as nothing more than experience one could view through evolving lenses of the past.  Our mistakes and previous decisions do not have to hang around us and be carried with us constantly weighing us down and impeding our progress.  The mind is capable of recognizing its own decisions and thoughts, and the mind is capable of freeing itself from the past by controlling what it does with the experiences (both good and bad) from our lives.

Owning Our Mistakes

Fred Kiel gives a few examples of what it means to be a great leader for a company in his book, Return on Character, where he focuses on the ties between strong moral values, success, and leadership. One of the examples he gives of what it means to be a leader who focuses on ethical and moral strengths involved owning up to our mistakes and being honest and forgiving with ourselves and others when we make mistakes.

 

In his book he tells a story to focus on a fictional character who does not receive a promotion. The character then begins to examine himself through a process of self-reflection to understand how he can change his behaviors and actions to enhance the skills that he had already developed. One area he identified for growth involved abandoning his habit of creating excuses for mistakes and failures, and working to better accept his errors. Kiel uses the simple example to show how an individual can become a stronger leader by beginning to better understand their mistakes and take responsibility rather than pushing blame onto others. Kiel’s character began to see that accepting his mistakes and forgiving himself for his errors made him a leader with stronger character, helping him connect better with those in the workplace. Kiel wrote of his fictional character’s change, “By owning up to his own mistakes, he would communicate to others in a very powerful way that he cared for them as people. He was telling them that he’s no better than they—that he shares a common humanity with them.”

 

By being honest and leading with character Kiel explains that we become more likable as people. Those around us with whom we work, spend time with, and live with will find us to be more complete when we acknowledge our mistakes. If we do not honestly address our mistakes then we put ourselves above others on a pedestal of perfection, and we fail to recognize an important part of our humanity.

 

Kiel also suggests that owning up to our mistakes helps make us better leaders and  more successful individuals. Failures and errors are things we will all experience and being able to recognize those shortcomings in a safe way will help us move forward. This part of his message reminds me of the advice that Bob Schacochis shared with James Harmon for him to publish in his book, Take My Advice. Schacochis writes of his early days working as a carpenter, “When it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good carpenter is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.” What he is saying is that we will all have errors along the way, but to truly be good we must recognize those errors and take the time correct them, allowing us to grow.  We can’t expect to be perfect and we can’t expect others to be perfect, but we can expect everyone to own up to their mistakes and to find ways to correct their errors.

Allowing Mistakes

In James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Harmon shares a letter written by Arthur Nersesian in which Nersesian writes, “Advice is important, but no amount of it will keep you from occasionally making a bad move.”  He explains that what will happen as we grow is that we will have good and bad luck, and that our ability to deal with and adapt to our good or bad luck is what will matter the most.  Relying on other’s advice won’t always help you because the advice that others have to offer comes from the luck they have experienced, and how they handled it.  Nersesian continues, “…recover after making a bad move.  Forgive yourself quickly, learn something from it, and move on. “  His two quotes combine to show that it is ok if you make a mistake, as long as you can approach your mistake in the right way.

 

We have all heard about the importance of learning from our mistakes, but what I like about Nersesian’s quotes is that he does not approach the world from a perfect point of view.  He accepts that there will be mistakes, and encourages us not to constantly worry about making mistakes.  For him, avoiding mistakes is not the important part of life, which is an idea that I resonate with.  From my own experience I know that if I strive to do great things I will reach a point where I am in new situations, and I may not always handle things the best way. There may be points where I do not know what I need to do or what is expected of me, and I may stumble from a lack of preparation.  If I adopt Nersesian’s point of view, I can be more relaxed heading into these situations, because when I make a mistake I will have a chance to understand why, and move on from it with new advice to offer others.  If I dwell on my mistake and beat myself up for not being perfect, then I will be stuck in the past, and I will be more hesitant in the future when new opportunities arise.

Correcting Mistakes Continued

Bob Schacochis continues in his letter to James Harmon published in Harmon’s book Take My Advice to explain a lesson he learned about making and correcting mistakes.  As a young college student working as a carpenter Schacochis learned a lesson in excellence when his work was corrected by a carpenter he was shadowing.  Schacochis had put something together and not taken the care and time to go back over his work to fix his errors, which led to a brief lecture that stuck with him his whole life.  The carpenter explained that the worst carpenters and the best carpenters all make mistakes, but that the best carpenters find their mistakes and know how to correct them.  Years later when Schacochis was standing on scaffolding inches away from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the carpenter’s words came back to him. He gazed in awe at Michelangelo’s work, and was amazed by the fact that up close, you could see the spots where the artist had repainted and corrected his mistakes in an attempt to perfect his art.
What Schacochis learned is summed up in the following quote, “In fact, I don’t even think learning from mistakes is the right focus to begin with, since it infers there is such a thing as a path to infallibility, which is both a simple-minded and dangerous notion.” This quote helps me see that it is ok for me to make mistakes as long as I can correct those mistakes.  Learning from the mistakes is an important thing, but I should not approach life as though I can learn from one mistake and forever avoid making similar mistakes and lead a perfect life.  For Schacochis mistakes are to be expected if one is constantly pursuing excellence and trying to be the best that they can be.  When you try to do more, and push yourself to new levels you will make mistakes as part of the growing process. There is definitely learning involved, but mastery of anything means that you know how to correct mistakes, as apposed to knowing how to avoid all mistakes.  A world without mistakes according to Schacochis is a world of complacency and mediocrity where one settles into a routine that does not change nor challenge the individual.  The mistakes are not admitted or even noticed, so there is nothing for the individual to correct.
Schacochis’ quote shows that it is ok for one to make mistakes, and that it is even expected that one will make mistakes as they pursue excellence in everything they do.  If one sets high expectations and pushes themselves to constantly improve and be better, then they will learn how to correct mistakes, not how to live a life that is free from mistakes.  When we stop striving for excellence we stop making mistakes because we stop trying to achieve more. A life of no mistakes is one where we let mistakes slip by, even though we know how to make something better or improve what and who we are. In this way Schacochis is encouraging us to push ourselves and accept our mistakes since life will never be perfect. Along the way as we continue to grow we will learn not how to live a perfect life free from mistakes, but how to correct our mistakes as we demand excellence.

Correcting Mistakes

A lesson I have learned from the podcast Smart People Podcast is that successful people are always learning and always taking away something positive away from whatever situation they are in.  In a letter to James Harmon for his book Take my Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two, Bob Schacochis writes about one of his first jobs as a carpenter.  Schacochis explains a lesson he learned when working with a carpenter.  The carpenter who was guiding him and helping him learn how to be great at the craft said, “How many times I have to tell you college boys, when it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good is the same.  The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.”
This quote speaks to me on multiple levels; about the difference between being good and great, about bringing lessons form one area of life into other areas of life, and about the importance of recognizing and avoiding your own sense of entitlement.  As a young college student Schacochis did not have the patience necessary to be a great carpenter.  He focused on his work and took the time to put a full effort into his work, but the problem was that he did not have the patience to double check his work and correct his errors.  As the carpenter explained, good carpenters and bad carpenters both make mistakes, however the good carpenters make an effort to repair their mistakes.  Schacochis was a poor carpenter not because he made mistakes, but because he tried to hide his mistakes without correcting the original problem.  As I write this, I am thinking about all of the times recently where I have slacked at work, made small mistakes, or rushed through my work.  By keeping this quote in mind at work I can re-focus on what will make me great, and what will make me average.  I believe that keeping this quote in mind will help me avoid allowing my work to slack, which in turn will make me more confident while avoiding the anxiety that comes from hoping that supervisors don’t notice my mistakes.
When the carpenter working with Schacochis says, “How many times I have to tell you college boys,” it show how entitlement affects young people in the workplace.  For college students the work they do to get through college is often times not meaningful work, or at least it does not appear to be meaningful work.  Physical labor and difficult tasks are easy to slack on for students who are studying to reach higher places.  The carpenter is calling out Schacochis for his entitled attitude, and how that attitude impacts his approach to physical work. Entitlement for younger generations is not just an expectation to have material things, but it also manifests as an expectation to not do difficult work.
With the lesson from the carpenter Schacochis was able to overcome his entitlement and begin focusing on being great.  He took the lesson he learned from working with his hands and double checking his work, and applied it to other areas of his work.  Successful people as I have learned from Smart People Podcast, are self aware enough to see where they need to grow and apply lessons from other areas of their life to those areas.

Mistakes

Recently I have moved out of the house I grew up in. I moved with my girlfriend of three years across town to an apartment to start out on our own and live our own lives.  The process has been exciting, scary, and for us filled with luck.  However with all of the luck we have had, we have also made mistakes. Highlighted on January 9th from page 91 of my copy of Packing Light by Allison Vesterfelt is a single simple sentence, “I am going to give myself freedom to make mistakes.” For me this is a new line of thinking, and one that is not easily adopted.  I graduated Cum Laude from college, have found a great job, and love to stay physically fit, but none of that helps me be prepared for just how difficult life can be when you work 40 hours a week and have to maintain more responsibilities in your post-graduation life.  I have strived to work hard, make good choices, and achieve a level of perfection in the things that I do, but lately I have come to understand that as part of growing and learning in life, I will make mistakes. What Allison’s quote says to me is that it is fine if you make mistakes.
Living by the quote means that we accept our imperfections and understand that we do not know everything nor have all of the answers for life.  In a society where we hide every imperfection of our lives and project our highlight reels on Facebook as if they were our every day lives, accepting that you will fail, struggle, and mess up from time to time is not a frequently accepted mindset.
When I started to understand that I would make mistakes and accept that I would not do everything perfectly I began to feel more at ease. I was able to picture myself in the future as someone who was constantly growing and learning from mistakes and unreasonable expectations. The best part of living by Vesterfelt’s quote is that the pressure and stress that I felt before, when I expected things to be easy and perfect, has melted away. I can go into a situation and try to be as aware as possible, and understand that it is ok if I make a mistake.