How to Recover From a Terrible Mistake


Last week, we talked about my hero, Jim Lovell and the astonishing courage he and his fellow crew members displayed during the Apollo 8 mission when they became the first humans to escape earth’s orbit.

But what most people don’t know, is that during that mission, Jim made a mistake. A big one. A potentially fatal one, in fact.

It happened on the journey back to earth. While physically and mentally exhausted, Jim entered the wrong command into the onboard computer. As a result, the spacecraft thought it was back on the launch pad; so it flipped from its proper nose forward attitude, to a nose up one, as if waiting to blast off. And each time Jim tried to force it back into the correct nose-forward attitude, it just popped back up.

Not good.

Ultimately, Jim was able to reorient the spacecraft by using his thrusters to align it with the stars Rigel and Sirius. Then he had to enter the new data into the computer so it would know where it was. This required math. Emergency math. In space. I shudder to think of it.

But it worked.

NASA called the incident an “Unplanned Manual Realignment”.

Sixteen months later, Jim was back in space, this time on Apollo 13. And, as we all know, things didn’t go to plan. Once again, Jim was in a spacecraft that had lost its orientation, this time, because of the many complications caused by an explosion or “pretty large bang” as the crew put it, in one of their oxygen tanks.

And once again, Jim Lovell was called upon to perform an unplanned manual realignment using math and thrusters and stars. Only this time, it was old hat. Jim had been there and done that. And while it wasn’t easy, once again he and his crew returned home safely.

No one likes making mistakes. Mistakes are unnerving, embarrassing, time consuming and sometimes, expensive. But they’re also a gift. A very valuable gift that unfortunately, most of us would rather not receive. Because most of us see mistakes as a curse. And so, we avoid them at all costs. Taken to the extreme (as many who suffer from perfectionism do), this means no risk, no exploration, no creativity and no ingenuity.

And in times of crisis, no clarity.

Once you begin viewing mistakes as a gift, the only response to them is gratitude. Because without them, we don’t learn a damn thing. And when things go wrong, we don’t have the resources to get ourselves to safety.

In other words, without mistakes, there is no wisdom.

What’s the best way to recover from a mistake?

Well, for starters, get over yourself. Did Jim Lovell spend the 25 minutes it took to fix his Apollo 8 blunder cursing and beating himself up? Nope. He got over it. He fixed it. And he moved on.

Next, ask yourself these 6 questions.

  1. What did you learn from the mistake?

  2. Were you doing the best you knew how to at the time?

  3. Have you fixed the problems the mistake gave rise to? If not, what’s your plan to do so?

  4. If someone else in your life made that mistake, would you forgive them?

  5. How can you change your thinking about the mistake? Can you think of it as a gift? Can you thank yourself for making it?

  6. How can you help others avoid that mistake?

After all, as Maya Angelou said, when you know better, you do better.

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