Making Mistakes

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Today’s positive thought is evidence of the fact that the positive thoughts you’ll be reading here this year are not (and were never meant to be) revolutionary, original, or particularly clever. They’re quite the opposite: they’re little things. Things that are common sense for many people. Things of which most of us only have to remind ourselves occasionally. They’re things that apply to me that very day.

Today’s note is one of those, but it’s something I have struggled with my entire life, and as I wrote this first note of the year, I realised it’s also something that is key to this whole project. I dwell on my mistakes. I always have. In an unhealthy kind of way. I berate myself endlessly, and take anything I do wrong or anything stupid or ill-judged I say as yet another piece of evidence that I’m a complete and utter idiot, and that people are thus right to dislike me, to treat me badly, to frown at me.

But over the past year or so – not least thanks to my amazing neighbours, but also with the help of other friends and colleagues, and, importantly, my students – I’ve learned that the only person who hates me for my mistakes is me. And that there’s no point in doing so. Simple, right? Well, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point. It’s taken me a long time to realise that the people who are worth something in your life don’t simply abandon you or punish you because you made a mistake. They don’t berate you because you put a foot wrong. They accept your apologies. They talk to you about what you did wrong and how – if at all – it has affected them. Sometimes, they don’t even notice what I dramatically brand a huge error and have worried over for days or weeks. They help you brush it off. They help you realise the real implications of what’s happened. And usually, there are none, or they are not worth getting hung up on.

Having people around me who judge me by my friendship and not by my mistakes has made a huge difference to how I see myself when I feel I did something wrong. Like feeling a seminar or lecture should have gone much better than it did (in my head). Like replaying a conversation over and over and over in my head because I think I said something embarrassing or stupid (that the other person probably can’t even remember). And of course other people make mistakes, too. And they, too, deserve to not be judged simply on their slip ups.

The same counts for our professional lives. A mistake doesn’t define who you are as an academic. It doesn’t make or break your work, your teaching, or any other professional activity by which you may judge your success. There are a lot of mistakes in academia that actually have very little real impact outside of our heads. Remember that the next time you panic over a typo or a typo in an article, having lost your trail of thought in a lecture, a paper that didn’t go the way you wanted, or a deadline you missed by a day. Last time I checked, the world didn’t end because of any of these.

On a much more basic, practical level, I also realised just how difficult the daily writing of these thoughts would be for me. It’s a valuable exercise because it takes a lot of control on my part to not rewrite my sentences ten times over until I think they look neat. I own countless notebooks with ripped out pages, all victims of a misplaced desire for aesthetic perfection. So an added challenge, about which I hadn’t really thought until I put pen to paper, is to write down each thought and accept it as it is. Poorly phrased, not as prettily written as I’d like, and – as is the case with today’s – a random, unnecessary comma that has been haunting me ever since I noticed it. But I won’t rip out the page. I won’t cross out the comma. I won’t rewrite the thought.

Mistakes are integral parts of our lives. How we deal with them determines who we are, and who we want to become, and who we don’t want to be anymore. We forgive others for them, and deserve to afford ourselves that privilege, too.

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Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2019), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory arts and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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