The difference between the wise man and a fool is that a fool’s mistakes never teach him anything.
I believe that at the heart of this popular expression is personal responsibility. The wise man takes personal responsibility for his mistakes; the fool blames others for his own. And many of us play the fool more often than we know.
The most powerful lessons we learn are from our own failures. The hidden power of mistakes is that they are the very ore from which wisdom is produced. It is the alchemy of turning the base metals of error into something precious—and lasting. We arrive at a higher level of consciousness when we take personal responsibility for our mistakes.
Equally important are the insights into our characters that mistakes can provide. Mistakes, especially those that cause others pain and suffering, are like mirrors. They reflect back to us moments when we were too self-absorbed to respond thoughtfully to others. For example, failing to express gratitude for a friend’s help.
How can we change if we are unaware of our weaknesses? We can’t fix what we can’t see. Mistakes offer us a chance to discover our weaknesses and an opportunity to change.
All of us will experience lapses of awareness that lead to mistakes. We are all flawed beings and that is a part of our shared human experience. It is the way that we respond to mistakes that is the difference between the wise and the foolish. It is the fool who will find a way to blame others to cover for his or her own social unconsciousness. The wise person avoids excuses and will promptly take responsibility for his or her errors.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, we learn that honesty in “all our affairs” is what gets us sober. When we look at the problems we create for ourselves and others, we see where we were at fault and we promptly admit our mistakes to those we have wronged.
As long as we blame others for our problems, we don’t have to change anything about ourselves. No personal responsibility, unfortunately, means no wisdom, no growth, no emotional maturity.
In my life coaching practice, I have found that clients who struggle the most with personal relationships are those who are emotionally immature. And that immaturity is because of an unwillingness to hold themselves personally accountable for their character flaws and the mistakes in judgement they cause.
Psychologist maintain that the average adult is really only about 14-years-old emotionally. Many of us are really adolescents in adult bodies. One of the greatest contributors to living in an extended adolescence is a failure to learn and grow emotionally from our mistakes.
And this is understandable in our current culture that places so much emphasis on self-esteem. In her book Self-Compassion, Kristen Neff states, “People who are focused on maintaining high self-esteem will not look at themselves honestly because doing so will lower their self-esteem. They, therefore, blame others for their own problems rather than taking responsibility for creating them.”
Self-esteem is dependent on forces outside ourselves. It is based on the approval of others. In the social media world of Facebook, people live and die according to how many “likes” they have received from a post. Self-esteem then becomes something determined by popular vote. This pre-occupation with building and maintaining self-esteem is not only the domain of social media but also finds a strong presence in our classrooms, our school-sponsored athletics, and in our families.
When we refuse to accept personal responsibility for our mistakes, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become more skillful and competent people.
Instead of self-esteem, Neff recommends self-compassion. Self-compassion is internalized, and it is not about excuses but acceptance. It is about treating ourselves as our best friend. Unlike self-esteem, its pursuit doesn’t shy us away from our own personal responsibility In practicing it, we hold ourselves accountable while, Neff says, reminding ourselves in moments of falling down that failure is part of the shared human experience. We embrace our mistakes rather than looking away from them.
Though mistakes feel unpleasant, they offer a powerful catalyst for change, for self-awareness, and for emotional growth. By having the courage to admit our mistakes, we open the door to learning and emotionally growing from them. In doing so, we cultivate the capacity to respond more maturely and more skillfully in relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. And that’s one of the beautiful things about life. It continually offers us opportunities to move from living as the fool to thriving as the wise.