On Making Mistakes

At 57, I’m busy watching the next generation of folks feel their way along the path of their lives, and I’m wondering, “Do we have to make big mistakes to learn big lessons?”

I know I did. Case in point, when I was 22, I moved to New York City. Life was hard there, but I managed to find a good living situation ($450.00/month for the bedroom of a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn) and a good part-time job with full benefits. But I lasted only six months in the city. I missed amenities such as a washer and dryer, my car and the predictability of a suburb of Akron. Needless to say, I moved home.  

But what if I’d stayed? Where would I be now? I consider it a mistake that I didn’t last at least a year there. They say if you can survive a year in a new city, you’re home free; life gets easier; you may never leave.

Here’s another mistake. When I was 27 and was looking for my first full-time college teaching job, I opted for the position that paid the most money. Big mistake. The environment of the school was deplorable. It was run by a bunch of no good guys who still believed in breaking in new professors by having sex with them. I wasn’t playing that game, so I went nowhere at the school. After three long years, I left the university, miserable and disillusioned.

At this point, looking back, the best decision would have been to take the half-time teaching position at a local Catholic college. It didn’t pay as much, but the job would have afforded a much better place to land after years of getting three writing degrees and preparing to teach. The people at this establishment were just a little more ethical.

Hindsight is 20/20.

Now, I’m watching my neighbor’s son, who is trying to find a life partner. He’s 30-something, gay and lonely. I’ll call him Joe. His last boyfriend was unemployed and homeless. Joe has determined that dating this person was a mistake. The old boyfriend took too much from him. He had a marvelous personality, knew a ton about popular culture and was very attractive, but had no money, no apartment and no real job, leaving my neighbor’s son very drained at the end of the day.

Joe just met another unemployed, homeless guy. Joe considered dating this free spirit, but based on the knowledge he gained from dating the previous dude in the identical position, he passed.

Joe learned from his mistake. This is what he learned: people who have the same level of ambition as you are often the best to date.

I also learned from my mistakes. My lessons — you should give a new city at least a year, and there’s more to life than big bucks.

Making big mistakes produces big pain, but also can produce big new life knowledge.

At almost 57, I’m finding myself playing it a little safer than I did at 27. Perhaps, my life window for making huge whoppers of mistakes is over. 

My life partner is rather conservative. He’s a nine-to-fiver, an engineer, who always uses the right tool for the right project. The biggest risk he took in his life was marrying me, a bipolar writer, who turned out living through two bouts of stage two breast cancer. So far, I think my husband would say that his decision to hook up with me was not a mistake. But it was a risk.

So there are risks that often turn into mistakes — or can turn the other way, into successes.

I too have taken and will continue to take risks. Hell, I’m not dead yet.

(Note: As I’m writing this, I’m listening to my husband’s music, Pink Floyd. Ironically, I usually can’t have music playing when I’m writing, but today, I simply sat down and started composing away, took a little risk, which turned out to be a success. Pink Floyd is quite creative, and it’s rubbing off on me.)

So what’s the lesson here? Should we be cautious and never venture out our comfort zone? Would we be safer that way Perhaps, but if we choose to live like that, we may not reach a higher level of enlightenment, of wisdom. In the long run, I’ll take making mistakes and the knowledge that brings any day.

Risks, mistakes, success. We need all three actually. To lead a full life, we need all three.

And a little Pink Floyd playing in the background.

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