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To Err is Human, To Make A Mistake is...
November 2009

By Julia M. Rahn, Ph.D.

A debate exists as to whether making an error is the same or different as making a mistake. In baseball, an error is the act of a fielder misplaying a ball in a way that allows a batter or base runner to reach one or more additional bases, when such an advance should have been prevented given ordinary effort by the fielder. The fielder made an error. He misjudged the speed, direction or height of the ball coming at him. While errors are tabulated at every game, some legendary mistakes show a profound difference between errors and mistakes. For example: Pete Rose will never be in the Baseball Hall of Fame even though he was considered one of the best players in baseball history. Rose was found to have bet on baseball while he managed the Cincinnati Reds. This mistake led to him being banned from Professional Baseball and his legacy as a truly great player forever tarnished.

Using these two baseball examples, there is a distinct difference between making an error and making is mistake. An error is made when a person’s perception, judgment, skill acquisition, and development is at fault. A mistake, however, happens when a person acting out a particular behavior knows that the action is illegal, unhealthy, and is related to other negative consequences. If you are truly playing your best game whether it be on the field, in the boardroom, or selling on the street, and an error occurs causing you to lose the ball, a contract, or a sale, you can re-evaluate your position and see what you could have improved upon to reach your goal. On the other hand, if you are consciously trying to “get ahead” by fudging numbers and lying or relying on altered states of consciousness (intoxication for example) to get by, these mistakes will result in very negative consequences. While, lying and cheating are certainly mistakes that get individuals into significant trouble and hardship in the workplace, there are smaller mistakes people make daily at the office that are just as disastrous.

Some common mistakes at the office:

  • Procrastinating
  • Having “just one more” cocktail at Friday’s happy hour
  • Dealing with your anger passive-aggressively
  • Eating three cookies instead of one
  • Padding the expense account (also illegal)

Errors, on the other hand, have to do with human judgment and perception. When one makes an error, he or she does not believe or know at the time that the action in question will end with negative results. A baseball outfielder certainly doesn’t know he is going to miss the ball, in fact he most likely believes he will make the catch and throw out a runner caught off base. Business owners and managers are not making a mistake when they hire someone after an interview who does not work out. Staff members are not making a mistake when they wrongly estimate how long a job takes and the results add to the cost of a project. These examples are all errors. Everyone makes errors. The bright side is that everyone can learn from their errors to decrease the chance of making these errors again. Learned lessons are the antidote to making new errors while a mistake, especially when you are conscious of making the mistake, is just a mistake and all consequences are a personal responsibility and liability.

A problem exists that many people lump errors and mistakes in the same pile. If they make an error they either blame themselves, others or try to deny that it happened. When this is done, no new learning occurs and the chance of making the same error increases. In fact, denial and blame lead to increased feelings of shame, anger, and anxiety. These negative feelings are the exact emotions that impair our judgment and perceptions which in turn increase the likelihood of future errors! Furthermore, it is believed that people make mistakes as a way to cover up these negative feelings, just adding to the original problem.

The best way to handle making an error is to first remember to Breathe once an error has been found. You need all of your resources possible to figure out what happened, create a new plan of action, and a sufficient amount of oxygen to your brain will greatly support your efforts. Next, you need to Reflect on what happened. Just look at the facts, no blame or shame needed. Decide where the error occurred and then devise a Plan of action that will rectify the situation, and help prevent such an error in the future. You also must remember that an error may have occurred because you were playing in new territories. A new salesperson for example, will have to learn many new skills to be successful at sales. A human resource employee will have to conduct many interviews until their perception and the process results in few errors. Thus, help is needed when errors are the result of insufficient knowledge and skill development. Luckily, there are plenty of instructors, mentors and fellow colleagues with whom to consult with to develop a new plan. But in the end, the new plan will require Practice to improve your skills. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it sure helps in developing new skills.

No one likes to make errors but isn’t it reassuring to know that an error is not the end of the world? Baseball teams still win World Series, businesses continue to generate a profit, and relationships stay intact even when errors have been made. Errors remind us that we are human beings who have the opportunity to improve our skills, increase our profits, and enjoy life to the fullest as we continue to live and learn.

About the Author

Dr. Julia M. Rahn is a clinical psychologist and founder of Flourish Studios® – a multi-faceted learning center. In addition to running Flourish Studios® and working individually as a therapist with her clients, she is a speaker and consultant. To find out more about Dr. Julia and Flourish Studios®, please visit or call 773-281-8130.

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