When a Mistake is not a Mistake

English: Gov. Schwarzenegger visits Old Town E...
English: Gov. Schwarzenegger visits Old Town Eureka to survey earthquake damage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The scandalous downfall of a public figure is nothing new. During the past few years, the rogues’ gallery includes cyclist Lance Armstrong, golfer Tiger Woods, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Presidential candidate John Edwards, and former Governors Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Rod Blagojevich. And that’s just in the U.S. ~Brian Evje, “Leadership Uncut”

Inc.com always has great articles on just about anything helpful in the business world. For newbies, for oldies, for the in-betweens. Often, the authors they use have great Tweets (what used to be ‘soundbites’ in the world of radio/TV) that allow me to send out pearls of wisdom without straining my own brain which is rather overworked at the moment.

Possibly why I’m thinking about mistakes. Overworked brains make mistakes… but that’s for a post about self care. This post is about ‘mistakes’ that aren’t mistakes at all.

Being a psychologist with a foundational conviction about personal responsibility, which of course has an impact on the modalities I use and the techniques I employ, the idea that one can morph a personal choice into a mistake at will, and thus wipe away or be excused from the fallout regarding character, morals, etc., is to me, ludicrous.

A mistake is …well, an accidental or unexpected happening. i.e., “I thought when I did AB & C, XYZ would happen. I was mistaken.” There could be a variety of reasons for this. I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t have the right information. I didn’t have enough experience to know that it’s impossible for XYZ to happen from AB & C. But, in all those situations, I sincerely believed that the outcome would be XYZ when I made the decisions I did. Mistakes might look like they begin as choices, but actually, mistakes happen from decisions made with the best information available and with the intent for the best possible outcome.

Not all mistakes are negative. 3M’s scientists invented PostIt notes from a mistake while conducting another experiment. There’s a feel-good website listing fortuitous mistakes. It’s worth checking out (Ice cream was a ‘mistake.’)

Mark Sanford -- He's Back!
Mark Sanford — He’s Back! (Photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

Choices, on the other hand, involve the values, moral fortitude, and personal integrity of the individual making them. Lately, Mark Sanford has been repackaging himself in order to get back in the public eye. He’s taken to referring to his years’ long affair, lying to his wife, lying to the public disgracing his office and himself, as a “mistake.” As in, “People are human. They make mistakes.” Implying that you or I are just as likely to make this “mistake” and therefore, he, Mark, is not to be judged or criticized by anyone who may do the same thing.


I, and many others, have been married a long, long time and have not made the “mistake” of breaking our vows, lying to our spouses, or misusing the power/prestige of our professional lives to gain something we should have said “no” to in the first place.

It was not a “mistake” that Penn State chose to ignore/cover up/disbelieve the men/boys who were abused by Jerry Sandusky. Nor was it a “mistake” by Joe Paterno not to pursue the allegations that he allegedly reported to the admin at Penn State. It was a choice not to do anything that would expose Penn State and/or Sandusky to disrepute, investigation, or anything other activity that might interrupt their winning football program. Neither did Paterno do anything to protect the boys/men for which he was responsible as their coach/leader/mentor. This was not a “mistake” it was a choice and as beloved as Paterno was, he deserved to be fired as did other “high-ranking school officials.”

Bernie Madoff made a conscious decision every day for nearly 20 years to continue defrauding the many people who trusted him with their money. He did not, no, indeed could not have believed “…in ignorance or due to a lack of experience that ABC would result in XYZ.” He knew that he was committing fraud, betrayal of trust, kazaa, kazaa, kazaa (the Arabic equivalent of yada, yada, yada) . Mark Sanford knew that he was committing adultery, betrayal of trust, kazaa, kazaa, kazaa. If both of these men (and others like them) actually believe that ABC decision will equal XYZ outcome, then they have a whole lot more going on than just lack of character, greed, and a total disregard for solemn duty and commitment. That level of self-deception probably qualifies for a DSM diagnosis of some sort.

These are choices NOT mistakes. They all begin from the place of ignoring or hiding or lying (mostly to one’s self) about the moral or ethical lapse that is foundational to the choice being made.

Though spectacular personal and professional crashes seem to dominate the news these days, the principle is no different for any of us. There is an unbridgeable chasm between a mistake and a choice, and when we mix the two up, we lose our personal credibility, and I believe we damage our sense of self. To admit to a mistake takes humility, a willingness to learn, and to take responsibility for the outcome – characteristics generally approved and encouraged. To admit to having made bad choices takes humility, a willingness to own personal weaknesses and flaws, and to take full responsibility for the damage inflicted and the consequences. Not so easy for anyone, and seemingly, virtually impossible for many in the public eye or the C Suites.

Don’t get the two confused – when the decision about to be made is based on a moral or ethical lapse or is downright illegal, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice. The first deserves patience and mercy; the second censure and appropriate consequences.

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