Mistakes and Humility

Once I farted into a phone. I swear to God. In the early 2000s Chris and I were newly in Vancouver, living in a place with a shared landline, and one day there was a call for our housemate, Sean. I answered the phone, a cordless, went to knock on Sean’s door, and as I was waiting, absentmindedly let my arm relax, so that the receiver was hovering by my rear end, and I passed a little gas. Oops.

Live and learn. The problem is that if you are a perfectionist, as I tend to be, you think it goes, “Live and learn, so that at some point you stop making mistakes. Forever.”

About four years ago I made a different embarrassing mistake, and in the midst of berating myself, I uncovered the previously unconscious expectation that I should have already reached the age (40?) of no more mistakes. It was logical. Spend the first 40 years of your life scrupulously learning from your mistakes, so as never to repeat them, and then it’s all smooth sailing from there.

Of course, that logic breaks down very quickly because of, you know, reality. I went on making mistakes left and right. In fact, certain kinds of mistakes I make more frequently now than I used to, which is starting to get me accustomed to it. Once, well before the phone incident, I was verbalizing my incredulity over a mistake to a friend, saying, “How could I have done that?” and she said, “Um, because you’re human?” I’m not so shocked anymore, so maybe that is what life is really teaching me.

You should see me try to do simple math. I did fine in math, in school (my dad is a math genius and he helped me) but now the math part of my brain is so atrophied it’s like it had polio. I’ve been working on it though, ever since last year when I was trying to keep track of some correspondence and I failed to count to nine.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes. It masquerades as a virtue, and is a way we can strive to be good enough when deep down we think we aren’t. Learning from mistakes is useful, even key to living a decent life, but I will say it took a touch of maturity for me to realize that I’m going to continue making them.

Every epiphany of my life turns out to be a no-brainer. Something remains hidden until it somehow pops out and is suddenly so obvious I can’t understand how I didn’t see it before. And there’s always more. Mistakes do more than highlight a better way to proceed in the future, they teach us humility. Perfectionism may come from fear, but it comes wrapped in the hubris that perfectionism is even possible, and the subtle narcissism that believes spending time in excessive rumination on mistakes is a good idea. It’s an elaborate tool for control—control, the ego’s life’s work and hobby—made in an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Humility takes down all of that. It leaves us empty-handed, vulnerable, and, finally, honest. If perfectionism is fear in really good shoes, maybe humility is love in bare feet, made for walking with acceptance.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

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