Have you ever made a simple mistake that you just can’t shake? One of those: “wow, I can’t believe I did that,” moments that takes residence in the back of your mind and won’t let you forget it? More likely than not, we’ve all been there.
I work at a zoo and lately, I’ve been focusing on getting our individual chimpanzee identifications down. It’s going beyond the “well, that’s a chimpanzee” to “that one is Dave, there’s Millie, and the one over there is Monster.” Chimp IDs is being able to tell the chimps apart based on their individual traits: big ears, longer face, saggy swelling, grayer beard, scar on lip, etc. etc. etc. For two days, one of my mentors at the zoo had me ID the chimps several times (at least five) and I got them right every single time. Skip to the morning of the third day where our team lead has me ID the chimps and I manage to screw up on the very first chimp. I mistook this chimp for two others before I IDed her correctly. I know where I made my mistake. I was trying to do a quick ID without a clear head, so I just looked at just her face instead of her entire body. I can’t say if it was overconfidence that messed me up, the fact that it was early and I was tired, or the pressure of getting it right in front of the team lead, but after that mistake, I was doubting myself with all the other IDs and it showed.
I couldn’t stop kicking myself for over half the day. I messed up on one chimp. Just one and it wasn’t even the most difficult chimp to identify! I know these chimps. I know I know these chimps, but I jumped the gun on my identification. So, now it’s gonna take longer to prove I can do this.
Doesn’t it suck how a little mistake like that can dampen your day? It doesn’t have to be something like misidentifying chimps. It could be that you forgot something at home that you meant to bring to a party. It could be a question you missed on an exam or maybe you put something in the wrong place? Just a simple mistake that makes you think: “I should’ve known better. I should’ve done better.”
Mistakes like that will try to cling to you like burrs. If you get stuck on them for too long, they’ll start reminding you of other mistakes and other thoughts to further bring you down: “Ugh, I messed up on this one chimp just like I messed up on that one lock in 2019. Or that one question on my anatomy exam. Why can’t I ever get a 100%? Why do I always mess up when it counts? What am I gonna mess up on next?” Thoughts like that can be a rampaging stampede if you don’t wrangle them in at the gate.
Makes you wonder why it’s so hard to move on from simple mistakes. I’ve been told human beings strive for perfect, but can’t ever achieve it. With that in mind, it must take a special kind of discipline–or confidence–to just shrug and say: “yeah, I missed a chimp, but I know why. I’ll do better next time.” Some people have a more defined discipline for that kind of thing. I struggled with making my mistake for half a day while my coworker shrugged off hers in two seconds.
Regardless, we’ve all made mistakes. I’m certainly going to do better with my chimp IDs and not rush the answer until I’m confident in who I’m seeing. It’s easy to beat yourself up over your mistakes and start second guessing your actions, but that’s no way to live. You’re going to make mistakes every single day whether you realize it or not. Instead of going insane by trying to carry every mistake with you, take a deep breath, acknowledge it, admit to it, figure out what you did wrong and how to do better, then move on. You learn more with every mistake than you would if you got everything right all the time.
I hope you keep all this in mind the next time you find yourself saying: “I can’t believe I did that.”