Few things make me sadder than witnessing children repeating the same mistakes as their parents, or younger siblings repeating the same mistakes as their older siblings, or professionals repeating the same mistakes as their mentors. I’ve seen it countless times.
People make mistakes in life. We’re human. We’re fallible creatures who often don’t do things well.
At the same time, though, all of us have opportunities to learn from the mistakes others have made before us. If you’re willing to see where they messed up and also see how you can avoid doing the same thing, you spare yourself the pain and turmoil of dealing with that mistake.
Let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about.
As I was growing up, I witnessed several adults in my life make enormous personal mistakes thanks to alcohol and substance abuse. These were good people who just made some mistakes along the way, resulting in long-term consequences for their life that they’re still dealing with today.
It scared me. I went to great lengths to avoid their mistakes. Today, I occasionally enjoy a glass of wine with dinner and occasionally drink a craft beer. That’s pretty much it. I know what lies around that corner.
Also, when I was growing up, I saw my father’s career path often held in the hands of a poorly-managed corporation that seemed to alternate between boom and bust every six months, altering our family’s financial income with every change. I watched as he supplemented our family’s income with side businesses, but I realized from his experience that I should never trust that a company will take care of me and that I should have as many income streams as possible.
In 2005, I asked one of my professional mentors what his biggest professional regret was. He paused for a long while and he said, “It’s kind of a mix of a personal and professional regret. I was too focused on my career when my children were little. I make good money now, but I don’t have the relationship with them that I want. I’d rather make far less and have a deeper bond.”
In 2008, I walked away from my career because I didn’t want that distance between me and my children. I felt a gap developing there and it was one that scared me.
The people that went before me – the people that I love and respect – made mistakes. They’re not perfect, nor do I expect them to be.
I’m going to make mistakes, too. I’m going to make dumb career choices. I’m going to waste time. I’m going to needlessly spend money.
The thing is, there’s no reason at all for me to repeat the mistakes that the people who went before me made.
I’ve found that, time and time again, asking people that you respect and trust what their biggest regret in life is or what their biggest mistake in life was can teach you some valuable lessons.
Why? When we’re younger (or even when we’re older), we often can’t see the long-term effects of our own actions. Right now, I can see some of the boneheaded moves I made in college and in my early professional career, but I certainly couldn’t have seen them then. I’m probably not seeing some of the boneheaded moves I’m making right now.
What I do see is that virtually every time I watched and listened to a person I respected and looked up to and saw what mistakes they made and how the mistakes impacted their lives, it taught me something valuable. I saw a personal or professional or financial mis-step that I should be avoiding, too.
When I see a parent with older successful children, I see a parent who made a lot of good moves and is worth emulating. When I see a parent with troubled children, I see a parent who also made a lot of good moves, too, and perhaps some reflections that are worth hearing.
None of us need to repeat the failures of others. The life experience of many people is all around us, ripe for teaching us things.
All we need to do is simply open our minds, admit that we’re not perfect, and learn from where others have stumbled.
We don’t need history’s mistakes to repeat themselves.