I have been thinking about mistakes this week.
I spent 12 years on active duty in the Army. 8 of those 12 years were spent on Airborne status. I would jump out of planes regularly. Officially, I recorded 77 static line jumps from high-performance aircraft in those 8 years, not quite once a month. The actual number is higher, but many jumps are lost to history. I have documentation for 77.
77 is a significant number. I have taken off in an aircraft 77 more times than I have landed in one. 77 times it was gravity and a parachute that brought me back to the ground. As significant as 77 is, it is still short of my original goal. Most people who are Airborne for any amount of time have one number in mind. 100. The century mark. Our unit did special recognition for those who got to 100. There was a special plaque in battalion headquarters, and you got your name added when you made it. It was a huge honor.
People would work hard to get to 100, and with every jump that brought them closer, their excitement would build. There was one young E-5 I served with in the late 90s at Bragg who was a couple of months away from getting out of the Army. He was also sitting on 96 jumps. His focus his last few months was trying to get on any manifest of any aircraft he could find with a parachute. He was so close and wanted to get his 100 before he left for good.
One day, he told me that he was able to find a jump with an artillery unit and that they had another slot. He asked me if I would go with him for his 98th jump. I agreed and we showed up for prejump early the next morning. We went through the training refresher, moved to green ramp, and got ready. He was in front of me on the aircraft and jumped right before I did.
As we were falling, I was focused on what I had to do. Jumping from a plane tends to force concentration. I didn’t think about Sergeant Sullivan until I hit the ground. That’s when I heard his unmistakable Kentucky twang.
Now, you would have to know Sully to know how significant this outburst was. He was not an outspoken guy. I never saw him get upset, lost his temper, or be anything other than chill. No matter what was happening. Hearing him curse like that? I knew something was up. I gathered myself and walked over to where he had landed.
“You good, Sully?”
“Nah, bro. I think I twisted my ankle or something.”
I looked down at Sully’s legs. His right foot was bent at an unnatural angle. A bone was sticking out of his boot. He had done more than twist his ankle. He had a compound fracture of his right lower leg.
“I am gonna have to get the medics. I really need you to stay right here.”
“Just help me up. You can walk me over to the vehicle,” he said.
He was calm. I was not. But I was trying to be. “No. We won’t be able to do that. You need to stay here and let me get help. And don’t look down.” I waved my arms and caught the attention of the medics who were about 300 yards away. “MEDIC!”
They made their way over. The PA (a lieutenant) looked at me. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“He broke his ankle.” I half-whispered, trying to keep Sully from hearing.
“We’ll see. No need to be dramatic. Let’s take a look,” said the LT and kneeled next to Sully. The LT smiled and said, “what seems to be the issue?”
I was no longer able to remain calm.
“Well, I am no fucking doctor, but it seems to me that the issue might be that goddamn bone sticking out of his boot. Maybe we should start there, SIR.”
I looked at Sully and immediately regretted losing my temper. He turned white. “Bone?” he asked. “Yeah dude. Sorry. It’s pretty fucked up.” He looked away.
Sullivan was transported to the hospital where he got some metal rods in his ankle and a cast. He would leave the Army a few months later with a walking boot and 98 jumps. He would forever be 2 jumps shy of 100.
We talked a few days later and I asked what had happened. “I just wasn’t paying attention. I was up there lost in thought about the fact that I only had two left and thinking about who I could call to get on another aircraft. And when I realized that I was 25 feet above the ground, I started reaching for it with my feet. My right foot was lower than my left, and all the weight came down on my ankle. I misjudged the landing. I didn’t keep my feet and knees together. Rookie mistake. Now this.” He tapped his cast.
Have you ever made a mistake?
Have you ever misjudged the landing, or lost focus at the wrong time? Have you ever gotten emotional when you should have stayed calm, or stayed calm when you should have been emotional? Have you ever felt all your weight come down on some part of you that wasn’t in any way prepared to hold it?
We all make mistakes.
We make mistakes individually and collectively. We make mistakes of omission and commission. There are incidents and accidents. Goofs and fuckups.
Why do we make the mistakes that we make? What do our mistakes look like? How do we deal with them? DO we deal with them?
This week, I am looking at 5 Mistakes. 5 ways that we screw up. 5 ways we are less than our best selves. 5 opportunities to improve. 5 vectors for growth.
Mistake #1 – “Who knew?” Mistakes
Sometimes, we make mistakes because we just don’t know any better.
It could be that we don’t understand what we are being asked to do. The instructions may be unclear or presented in a way we can’t grasp. I am pretty sure I have hosed up every piece of IKEA furniture I have ever put together. There is no way I should have that many screws left over. I mean. It looks right. But it can’t possibly BE right.
It could be that we understand the task or situation, but we lack the experience or knowledge of what to do. After 77 jumps, I was comfortable with what I needed to do on an aircraft before and during jumping out. The first 7 times though? I was just listening and doing what I was told, hoping that I wouldn’t screw up anything too badly and hurt myself or someone else.
We have all made mistakes because we just didn’t know something that we needed to know or didn’t have some skill that we needed to have. Parenting is full of mistakes like this. These kinds of mistakes are common and are mostly innocent. People don’t know what they don’t know. And. They can also be impactful.
Mistake #2 – Mistakes of Focus
There are also times where we know exactly what to do and how to do it and screw it up any way.
We make mistakes because we are being pulled in 1,000 directions at once, or because we are trying to do 47 things at the same time. We forget that pot on the stove, or to pay that bill, or where we left our keys. Once I got in the van, started it up, put it in drive and headed to the grocery store, luckily noticing before I got down the hill that I had left Justin at home. More than once he has had to remind me to buckle his car seat.
These mistakes become more frequent for me as I get older. Maybe it is that there are more things in the world demanding my attention. Maybe it is that I am just less capable of managing complexity. Either way, the reality is that I make a lot of mistakes of focus. I used to blame ADD. While that is a factor, I also think sometimes I just don’t pay enough attention to what is right in front of me. Meditation helps. So does awareness.
Mistake #3 – Mistakes of Ambition
Sometimes, our eyes are bigger than our stomach. We bite off more than we can chew. We get out over our skis.
No matter what metaphor you use, the mistake is the same. We engage in action that we are either unprepared for or not currently capable of. And we make mistakes.
These are frequently productive mistakes. Mistakes of ambition can be useful. By trying new and challenging things we grow, get better, and learn more about ourselves. We SHOULD be challenging ourselves to try new things and practice new skills, even things that might be a bit beyond our capability. We *should* be looking to expand our world a little bit every day. And. A mistake still feels like a mistake. Even the productive ones can hurt. Even the useful ones can cause regret, even if it is just for a moment.
Mistake #4 – Mistakes of Volition
Sometimes, we make mistakes knowingly and willingly.
The first three categories of mistakes are common and happen to all of us in some form or another every day. And while they can all be impactful; they are not typically volitional. Shit just happens sometimes. To err is human.
Mistakes of volition are different. They ARE impactful, often profoundly so.
As a recovering alcoholic, I am very familiar with mistakes of volition. Most addicts are. We prioritize our addiction over other things. We cross red lines, we ignore warning signs, we deliberately do things that hurt ourselves and others. We prioritize our addiction over our relationships, our personal well-being, and the safety of those around us.
While addiction is spectacularly self-destructive, the hard truth is that we all do things that we know we shouldn’t. Maybe it is for the thrill of the thing itself. Maybe it is so we can push boundaries or see what we can get away with. Maybe it is because sometimes being bad feels good and meets some deep need that we don’t have the vocabulary to express.
Regardless of what brings us to that choice, when we make mistakes on purpose there is a cost. It costs the people around us. It costs us part of ourselves. This is a mistake that demands payment. And, as we frequently tell our kids, we get to choose our actions. But we don’t get to choose our consequences.
Mistake #5 – Systemic Mistakes
Some mistakes are made by good people who want to do good things. They know what they are doing and how to do it. They are focused on the task in front of them. They are doing the things that are in their purview, and for which they have prepared. They are doing everything they can to do the right thing.
And they make mistakes anyway.
They make mistakes because they are caught in a system that was designed to do a certain thing. And the system will do that thing, regardless of the individual choices of actors in that system.
A few years ago, Barb and I went on a trip to Santa Fe, NM. We stayed at the La Fonda hotel. The hotel sits on a site that has had an inn – in one iteration or another – since 1609. The current hotel was built about 100 years ago. It is a beautiful hotel in a beautiful city in (for me) the most beautiful state in the country. And.
Our room was almost comically small. The layout of the hotel was labyrinthine, with corridors and staircases and random doors all over. The hotel had been expanded and built up and renovated countless times. As we walked around the hotel, and in our tiny room, I had one thought that kept running through my head.
What if I was in a wheelchair? How would I have navigated the stairs? Would it have even fit in the room?
I don’t think that anyone who built the hotel did so with the explicit goal of making life harder for those with mobility issues. I don’t think anyone who worked there was directly ableist. I am sure that there were *some* handicapped accessible rooms. I am sure because they are required by law. At every level, I know that there were people trying to do the right thing. People who were knowledgeable and capable and had a good heart.
None of those good intentions could undo the simple fact that the hotel was designed and built at a different time, with different expectations about who would be served there and what those people might need. The SYSTEM was designed and built in such a way that it made life harder for those for whom life is already hard. It was designed that way. The exclusion of some, and the privilege for others, was built in.
And we see this pattern repeated in the world around us. And if you are looking for it, you will see it everywhere.
Mistakes are part of life. We all make them. They are as part of being human as breathing.
Our challenge is to interrogate our mistakes. To understand why they happen. We may not be able to eliminate them, but we can reduce their impact on ourselves and others. We can notice them and seek to make amends when we cause hurt for others – intentional or not.
We can try and make things better. This too is part of what it means to be human.
As ever, thank you for reading. Thank you for all the ways you have helped me better understand the mistakes I make and grow from them. I appreciate you all. Your support means the world to me.
I hope you have a wonderful week.
Be well y’all. And keep pounding the rock.
Jeff, I appreciate your thoughtfulness in how to categorize the categories. Sometimes the problem is that a relational mistake (essentially when the mistake occurs within a relationship of two or more people) may be considered by some folks but not considered a mistake by the committer or others. I hope that makes sense.
So, to O'Hag's point, amends cannot be made if there is no agreement that a mistake has been made. There is the idea that forgiveness is for oneself and not for the recipient of that forgiveness, but I think amends and forgiveness are different concepts. How do we categorize "half mistakes" or "alleged mistakes," when there is a lack of agreement if something was a mistake? These are just my ramblings.
Meanwhile, though, let's talk about that story in Mistake #2...
Beautifully said, again. If I may…I believe one of our biggest struggles with mistakes is making amends. Why we continue to struggle with the simple act of saying “I’m sorry” and “how can I make it up to you with actionable improvements?” escapes me. Mistakes are key to being human…and making amends for those mistakes are what prevent us from being sociopaths.