What a Stranger’s Mistake Taught Me About Recovering Gracefully

A student sits at a table writing a paper with a pencil while a book and pen sit on the table

“In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” – Benjamin Franklin 

With all due respect to Mr. Franklin, I’d add a laundry list of certainties: bad weather, the occasional head cold, and regretful purchases. 

Another certainty is making mistakes. Whether these mistakes are unintentional (I insulted someone’s favorite movie before learning that it was their favorite), short-sighted (I stayed up late finishing a page-turner even though I knew I’d regret it the next day), or outright neglectful (I backed into a fire hydrant because I was unaware of my surroundings), they all they all share the capability of deflating a person’s mood swiftly. I know this, as the examples I offered are personal ones!

Recently I had one of those days in which I made mistake after mistake. By dinner time, I was ready to crawl into bed and numb myself from all memories of the day. But even as I sipped a glass of my favorite boxed red and watched my go-to feel-good show, I reflected on my day…and as I did, a memory came to mind.

RELATED: How to Gracefully Handle a Mistake

Last semester, my husband taught a college course and, through the help of turnitin.com, he discovered that two of his students plagiarized major portions of their midterm assignments. As you can probably imagine, this was not a good scenario. But what came as a surprise to me, is that after the initial incidents, the stories of the two offending students diverged drastically. One student — we’ll call him A — went on to thrive in the class and ended the semester with my husband’s respect, while the other — he’ll go by B — barely earned a passing grade and left no trace of positivity in his lasting impression. 

The difference in the end for these two students came down to how they responded after making a major mistake. And their responses, it turns out, are translatable to many of my “oops” moments. 

Here are three of the key lessons I’ve learned from reflecting on their actions in the face of error, and how I have applied them to my own life:

Own your mistake and apologize

After discovering the plagiarism, my husband met with each student to hear their perspective. During the meetings, student A was quick to admit fault, while B denied culpability until he no longer could and then became sulky and defensive. Both A and B made a major mistake, but the former, by readily admitting the error of his ways, opened a door for repaired relationship and growth, while the latter, by trying to pretend that fault did not exist, made moving forward from the incident in any sort of positive way challenging. 

This first lesson highlights the importance of acknowledging our mistakes to ourselves and others. This can be as simple as saying, “Ooops! I really put my foot in my mouth with such an aggressive comment about that movie. I’m so sorry for being insensitive.” Apologies let others know that we see our mistake and regret it, an attitude that provides a gateway to repair.

Try to make things right with the person who has been hurt by your mistake

Sometimes, more than an apology is required to repair our relationship with someone we have hurt. In the case of the cheaters, they needed to re-write their midterm assignments. My husband tells me that student A took his second chance at the assignment seriously, devoting hours to research and writing, seeking input during office hours, and ultimately turning in a quality paper. Student B, on the other hand, turned in a new and non-plagiarized piece, but it was evident that not much attention had been given to it. 

In the lucky circumstances when we get second chances, we have an option: Do we take advantage of the opportunity to make things right, or do we just keep doing more of the same? It’s embarrassing for me to realize how often I take the second path. 

Take the example I gave of staying up late finishing a book. There’s nothing inherently wrong about this choice, but because I have children and a job, sleeping in is almost never a possibility. So reading under the covers until 1 a.m. almost definitely means that I will be tired the next day. After a day of impatience with my toddlers and snapping at my husband, I would do well to first apologize, and then make things right by sticking to a bedtime that enables me to be my best self for my family.

Consider what led to the mistake in the first place, and make changes so it doesn’t happen again

The university where my husband taught required that all students with plagiarism accusations meet with the chair of the ethics committee as well as their professor to discuss the circumstances and make plans for moving forward. During student A’s meeting, he reflected on the procrastination that led to his rushed — and therefore plagiarized — assignment. He then worked with my husband and the ethics chair to brainstorm time management techniques and resources he could turn to if he struggled with future assignments. 

Student B, on the other hand, remained sullen and unreflective during his meeting. Both students entered the meetings with similar stories, but student A left with several tools, and B left with none. The lesson here is the cliché but important advice: Learn from your mistakes. 

RELATED: 4 Ways to Forgive and Make Peace With Yourself

That fire hydrant that I mentioned backing into? My initial reaction to the accident was to moan and groan about the terrible placement of the hydrant because, well, it’s always easier to blame someone else for my mistakes than to take responsibility. But when I cooled down from the incident after a few hours (okay, okay…days), I could see that the fault for the dented bumper was mine alone. 

I recognized that rushing and distraction (I was chatting with a friend as I backed up) led to my expensive mistake, and I made the decision once and for all (okay, okay…again…I still struggle with this!) to focus more while driving. 

Making mistakes will probably never feel good, but that doesn’t mean that good can’t come from our errors. As my husband’s tale of two cheaters showed me, what happens after we mess up depends in part on how we respond to the moments that we wish we could run away from. Here’s to saying sorry, making things right, and learning from our mistakes!

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