We have to make mistakes, it’s how we learn compassion for others. — Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife

There are a lot of upsides to screwing up.

  1. Failure teaches, and it’s a far better teacher than success.
  2. Failure keeps us humble. Our shortcomings balance our successes.
  3. Failure helps us develop empathy. Or, to paraphrase Curtis Sittenfeld (because I like her wording better), mistakes teach compassion.

How, though? Here’s one way we can use our mistakes to develop compassion, and it’s something we already do (but for ourselves, not for others): think about the intention behind the action.

Consider Others’ Intentions, Not Just Their Actions

[We] judge ourselves by our motives—and others by their behavior. — Stephen Covey (and many others, it turns out)

We give ourselves a lot of second chances, don’t we?

Because we know our own intentions, it’s easy to let ourselves off the hook even as we train a withering stare of judgment on the idiocy of others. But if we look closely at our own past, we realize that most mistakes have pretty good explanations.

Who hasn’t done something stupid in a moment of panic, overwhelm, or fear?

As an academic advisor, I work mainly with college freshmen. Now, college freshmen make a lot of mistakes. They always have, too. I sure did. In helping students correct their errors, I often get to hear their explanations, and the silliest-sounding mistakes often don’t sound so silly with a little context.

For instance, here are three mistakes I’ve seen students make that might seem ridiculous on their face:

  1. Failing to ask a professor for help (even though helping students is her exact job, and she’s happy to do it).
  2. Spending nearly every waking moment locked in one’s dorm room, playing Call of Duty.
  3. Just . . . not going to a certain class anymore. You can imagine what grade this results in.

These are obviously errors in judgment. But check out the reasons behind them:

  1. “I didn’t want to ask my psychology professor for help, because he’s really smart and I felt like my questions were dumb. This is my major—I’m supposed to know this stuff, you know?”
  2. “I’m having trouble making friends, so I’m staying in my room like all the time. But that just makes things worse. I feel so awkward.”
  3. “I missed biology a few times. I meant to start going again, but I was really embarrassed about walking into the classroom after missing a week and a half. So I just . . . didn’t go back.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve made significant mistakes which we’re quick to explain away. It’s only fair to extend the same courtesy to others.

At the end of the day, the vast majority of people are doing their best.