Dealing with mistakes: Part 1

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It’s the weekend. You’ve had a challenging week at work, but you coped, and it’s over. You’re sitting in the sun with a few friends at your local pub relaxing with a drink when your phone lights up: work calling. A small crack appears on the edge of your previously contented state of mind. Maybe it’s nothing… You pick up the phone and leave the table. It’s the boss: “You know that cat that had the surgery on Thursday…” “Yes…”  “There’s been a problem…”  The small crack spreads like a bolt of lightning across an empty sky, and your sense of wellbeing shatters into a million pieces. 


The fear of making mistakes and the question of how to deal with them rated amongst the top concerns that young vets have about their careers, according to a recent survey that I was involved in. This should come as no surprise: by the time you graduate as a veterinarian you are well aware of all that is expected of you and of the myriad of ways that you can stuff up. Add to that the horror stories we are told about litigation, then mix in our innate fears about embarrassing ourselves and appearing stupid, and it’s a small miracle that we don’t just surrender to a constant state of paralysing panic.

Anxiety and the overall decrease in wellbeing that can arise from a fear of making mistakes is a big enough problem in itself, but there is a more insidious and possibly more damaging consequence that arises from an ‘error avoidance’ based career: the risk that you might not grow into the best possible version of yourself. 

“By not trying things you are aiming to remove all danger and risk: the risk of failure. This does not protect you in the long run. It keeps you weak and stunts your growth.”   Ray Dalio

Challenging yourself by learning new skills and trying different things exposes us to the risk of failing. Failure is pain, and our natural inclination is to avoid pain, but in order to allow growth you need to continuously push yourself and risk making mistakes along the way.

“Negative emotions help us learn. We need to learn, because we are stupid and easily damaged.”  – Jordan Peterson

“To do exceptionally well you need to push your limits, and when you push your limits you will crash, and it will hurt a lot. You will think you have failed, but that won’t be true unless you give up. Believe it or not, your pain will fade, and you will have many opportunities ahead of you. 

The most important thing you can do is gather the lessons these failures provide and gain humility and radical open mindedness in order to increase your chances of success. Ray Dalio 

The flip side of pain is the pleasure of success. The rush of positive emotions that you experience when you succeed at something hard will create positive feedback loops that will motivate you to challenge yourself again and again. This will not only affect your growth as a professional, but increase your general sense of self worth and mental well being. In the absence of this kind of stimulation it is likely that you will become bored, dissatisfied and eventually stagnate. 

It’s easy to be philosophical about it, but the reality of actually making a mistake really does hurt. Other than the immediate deleterious effects on the patient that you are trying to help we also worry that it will affect our future careers as well as our self confidence. We worry about loosing the respect of our colleagues and peers. We want to feel and appear smart and capable – after all, most vets have a long history of success and achievement, so to suddenly be a position where we’re faced with the embarrassment of failure is an uncomfortable space to occupy. So how do we get past this? 

Well, for a start we can get over the idea that we are above making mistakes, that errors are a sign of weakness or inferiority, and that we have to pretend to know everything. If you acknowledge to yourself and to others that you have room for improvement you will make it easier on yourself and those around you. You don’t always need to be right. In fact you almost certainly aren’t. 

“Always remember that you are stupid, or at least don’t presume that you’re too clever to make mistakes.”  – Ray Dalio

If you don’t mind being wrong on the way to being right you’ll learn a lot and increase your effectiveness.” – Ray Dalio

This way, when you do mess up, (and you will!) it’s much easier to see it as an inevitable part of our profession and an opportunity for learning, rather than a personal failure. Reframe ‘mistakes’ as ‘lessons’. Take comfort in knowing that if you are making mistakes that you are operating at the edge of your abilities, and it’s at the edges where the fastest growth happens. Big wave surfer Shane Dorian once said that if he’s not regularly wiping out it’s a sign that he’s not pushing himself enough, and that his surfing will suffer for it. Instead of sticking to the easily makable waves in life, go looking for the ones that can hurt you. It might be scary, but this is where you’ll get the ride of your life. 

Of course you need to know which waves may hurt, and which ones can kill you. You need to be fit and prepared, and know your limits. And if you end up in a big wipeout you need to know how to respond to get yourself out of trouble. You need to not drown. In our next blog we’ll look at some practical tips on how to best deal with the realities and the fallout of making mistakes. 

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