Mistake or Choice?

I don’t like mistakes—mine or anyone else’s—and have spent a lot of energy in my life trying to avoid making them. My strategies—to over analyze and over prepare, or give up before I even start (if I can’t guarantee my own victory). And, if an error is spotted, I know I can just blow it off as a minor issue. I’ve been employing these tactics for years, since I was very young, as evidenced by the following story.

I grew up near Omaha, Nebraska, out in the country. We had few neighbors and ours was a one-room school house with one teacher and five grade levels. Absolutely no athletics. When I was nine, we moved to Arizona and I started going to a big city school. It was culture shock for me. That’s where I discovered sports. I had never seen a football or a baseball in my life, whereas the other boys had been playing sports most of their lives. As you can imagine, I was no match for their skills. Though I tried for a while, I made enough mistakes that I chose not to play or compete.

This aversion to sports wasn’t short-lived. In high school, I enrolled in ROTC just to avoid P.E. By making this blanket self-exclusion, I denied myself any opportunity to join in a team activity, or get any better at what I just lacked experience in. I may never have been a star athlete, but I might have been a solid runner.

I realize that we all make mistakes and fail, but mistakes can be one of life’s greatest teaching tools. We learn a great deal from failures, more than we do from successes. But I also learned the importance of differentiating between a mistake and a choice. Without that distinction, I can fall into a trap of self–deception. A mistake is an unintended error while trying our best to be successful, something I can’t anticipate. Mistakes just happen. A choice, on the other hand, is a conscious decision to pursue a course of action.

Why is this important? Because I am more accountable for my choices than I am for my mistakes. This blurring of the lines—what is a pretty common affliction—came to light in a recent MBA leadership class I was teaching when I discovered that one of my students had plagiarized the majority of an assignment. I told the student I was disappointed, and the student replied, “I made a mistake.”

I said, “No, you made a choice.”

I have often tried to convince myself that my choices are just innocent mistakes, in an effort to lessen my obligation to accept responsibility. Just as in the story I tell in “Integrity Squandered,” I made a bad choice to replace the tires on my company car using company funds, just before taking personal ownership of the car. Yes, it was a huge mistake, but one that resulted from a poor choice.

The current state of my life is a result of the thousands of choices I have made. From the profound choice of marrying my wife to many lesser choices like a job offer I decided to take, choosing not to smoke, buying a house, or following a certain course of study. It doesn’t take much reflection to realize how different my life would have been if I had made any number of different choices on seemingly minor issues. All of which have the potential to alter my life in very significant ways, even now.

In his commencement speech at the Citadel in May 1993, former President Ronald Reagan spoke about choices and the building of character and integrity:

“The character that takes command in moments of critical choices has already been determined. It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments…It has been determined by all those day-to-day decisions when life seemed easy and crisis far away, the decisions that piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness; habits of self-sacrifice, or self-indulgence; habits of honor and integrity—or dishonor and shame.”

I am responsible for my life’s outcome. It’s wrong to blame anyone else, bad luck, or fate. I am the prime contractor for my life under construction. Everything I choose changes me and eternity. I must try to be wise and discerning and choose wisely and forgive myself for making mistakes.

Douglas Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Christian University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at dbgehrman@hotmail.com.