Why Buddhists Don’t Sweat Mistakes

(Photo above by Lisa Fotios / Pexels)

Mistakes often comes in pairs. There’s the mistake we actually make, then the mistake of putting ourselves down or feeling the future we wanted is not possible because of the mistake we made.

Mistakes are unavoidable. Here’s what Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda shares on mistakes:

Nothing is irredeemable in youth. Rather, the worst mistake you can make when young is to give up and not challenge yourselves for fear of failure. The past is the past and the future is the future. Keep moving forward with a steady eye on the future, telling yourselves: “I’ll start from today!” “I’ll start fresh from now, from this moment!”

Discussions on Youth, pp. 73–74

Buddhism is about starting from the present moment. It’s about awakening to the truth that we shape the future by what we do in the present. We chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, so we can bring our best selves to the table each day and create a bright future regardless of what has happened in the past.

During his time with the Miles Davis quintet, Herbie Hancock once cringed with embarrassment when he played the wrong chord in the middle of his piano solo. However, what Miles did next shocked him: He played a series of notes that made Herbie’s wrong chord sound like part of the composition. Later Miles would famously say, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note—it’s the note you play afterward that makes it right or wrong.”

If we can learn from our mistakes and not let them rob us of our boldness or hope, then we can grow. Eventually we will see these mistakes as essential to all of our later accomplishments and victories. The mistake then becomes something we are happy happened, instead of something we regret. In other words, we make the wrong note the right note.

If we can learn from our mistakes and not let them rob us of our boldness or hope, then we can grow.

Psychologist Mel Schwartz echoes this idea when he writes, “A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which we have not come to realize.” Our mistakes, which are often emphasized by our pain and disappointment, show us the deeper patterns of behavior that we want to change. Did you do something dangerous once to impress a friend? From such an experience we can see our tendency to want to seek approval from others, no matter what the cost. Accidentally set the kale lasagna on fire in the oven? Maybe too often we think we are so gifted we don’t need to follow instructions. We need to root out this carelessness and become someone who pays attention to the details.

But just because we should reflect when we make a mistake doesn’t mean that we need to be filled with despair and gloom when they happen. In fact, we can be somewhat lighthearted and detach ourselves from our guilt and anxiety thinking, “I’m happy I learned this; now I change about myself and not suffer from it in the future.” Because if we get too down on ourselves and stop trying new things for fear of failure, we make the worst mistake—giving up on ourselves.

Ikeda shares this most elegantly:

Life is best lived by being bold and daring. People tend to grow fearful when they taste failure, face a daunting challenge or fall ill. Yet that is precisely the time to become even bolder.

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