The Art of Turning Every Mistake Into a Win

A disappointment is simply an opportunity for growth

Photo: Rajesh R Nair/Getty Images

I just paid $14 for a bag of dirt. It’s not the end of the world but it’s also not ideal for a full-time artist living off the support of patrons and, well, Medium claps.

It happened so quickly. I didn’t check the price before the shopkeeper loaded it into the back of the car and all of a sudden I was handing over 26 bucks for one shiny blue pot and a bag of dirt. Apparently that’s what you get when you decide to buy garden supplies at a bougie plant shop in the middle of Hollywood.

Historically, I haven’t had a great relationship with money — it always seems to go out faster than it comes in — but I’ve been working really hard to change that. Or so I thought until I spent $14 on something that comes from the ground for free. As I drove away, I started beating myself up. You know better. You should have driven the extra couple miles to Home Depot. You’ll never make it here, kid; you’re going to have to move back to Canada and sling beer for tips for the rest of your life. The usual.

Before the shame spiral could pick up enough speed to swirl on its own, I halted my thoughts. No, Kelly. This is not what we do anymore. And then I employed the simple trick I use to turn any negative experience into a positive one.

I’m never going to stop making mistakes. That’s the reality of being human.

First, I accept that I’m never going to stop making mistakes. That’s the reality of being human. As long as I’m living an interesting life, taking risks, and putting myself in new situations, I will continue to buy $14 bags of dirt. Metaphorically speaking.

Next, since I can’t avoid making mistakes, I remind myself that the purpose of a mistake is to learn from it, not to slip into the thought spiral of doom where all my hopes and dreams go to die. Fixating on the misspent money and beating myself up over it only serves to reinforce my insecurity and distract me from the present moment.

I am most likely to make a mistake when I’m feeling insecure or I’m not focused on the present moment. Usually it’s both. I listen to the story in my head that tells me I’m not good enough and lose track of the task at hand, which causes me to mess up; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But I can tell new stories. I can ignore the easy impulse to beat myself up and instead take control of my thoughts and feelings. Though it feels impossible sometimes, turning negative thoughts into positive ones is simply a matter of reframing them.

The mistakes I beat myself up for the most are the ones where I undersell myself. It usually happens at a networking event and it almost always happens with someone I’m trying to impress. I get caught up in insecurity because I’m stressed about the cost of drinks or there’s a zit on my chin or I’m not feeling confident about my work, and so I say something that undermines my worth. There’s someone important standing in front of me, taking me at face value, and I tell them, in an insecure and thus garbled, poorly grammar-ed way, that I am not worth their time.

It’s so silly; I do it all the time. But that’s because I’m constantly putting myself in new situations, talking to more and more important people, and forging my way step by step. I am able to continue moving forward, strengthening my self-worth and my ability to stay focused on the present moment, because each time I mess up, I give myself a big ol’ pat on the back and say, Thank you, Kelly. I’m so glad you learned this now.

Reframing my mistakes as lessons my future self is grateful for allows me to regain immediate control over my negative thoughts and feelings. I’m then able to redirect that energy toward positive thoughts and feelings.

It serves nobody and nothing for me to stay upset over a mistake. The faster I can divest from negative thinking, the faster I can move on with my life. There’s always going to be another situation, another opportunity, another chance to prove myself. That next time may very well be more important, and I will be ready. I needed this experience in order to get there.

Our thoughts aren’t inherently real; they’re just stories we tell ourselves.

Our thoughts aren’t inherently real; they’re just stories we tell ourselves. So tell your negative thoughts to hit the road. Remember: You are the narrator of your life. Tell the story that serves you best.

Someone wise once said, “No $14 bag of dirt, no Medium article. Er, rather… Someone wise once said, “No mud, no lotus. Mistakes aren’t failures, they are gifts. They are an incredible catalyst for change. Thank your lucky stars every time you mess up. Roll around in that mud and see what blooms. Put your proverbial $14 bag of dirt to use and watch what beautiful things grow.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series that supplies you with instructions for living.

Fugitive. Systemsthinker. Saving the world is easier than we think. There is no world.

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