Mistakes Were Made

Sometimes in the middle of the day, totally by reflex or accident, I blurt out, “No” really loud. The word escapes my throat before I can stop it. I’m daydreaming about some mistake I made over the past 40 years and how embarrassing it was. How ashamed I feel. I want to take it back and I can’t help myself. Out it goes, “No.” “NO!” Claudia is used to it. My kids are used to it but sometimes if it’s in front of their friends they have to explain what’s happening.

Mistakes I’ve made in the past make me afraid to try new things in the future. I want to be perfect. I want every idea I have to make me money. I want every post I write to have 10,000 facebook likes. I want every talk I give to have people laughing at all the right jokes. I want everyone to like me all the time. With so many wants, and so much potential for things to go wrong, so much need for perfection, it’s hard to move forward in life.

(Miss Steak or mistake?)

Here’s the anatomy of a mistake:

–          You have a goal. Make it a big goal. Room enough to have some mistakes. But not so big it kills you.

–          You make mistakes achieving that goal

–          You admit you were wrong

–          You feel ashamed

–          You feel afraid to make more mistakes

–          You study the mistake – where did you go wrong. Why did you go wrong? When was the moment you realized you were wrong and how quickly did you try to rectify it? What could you have done differently? Why are you ashamed of it?  Then repeat all of the above questions and see how your answers change. Then repeat again.

–          Confess the mistake to the people it affected most. Honesty is hard to do before we die. Just dive in and do it.

–          Tweak the goal (or replace it with a completely new one) and try again. Don’t be afraid to go head first into the unknown.

–          Repeat

It’s hard to move past the “admit you were wrong” part. Most people insist they are right. They argue with everyone around them. “I was right!” They are never wrong! The cage gets tighter around them. Everyone makes mistakes. But let’s say only 10% admit them. The lies build up like a river of shit being held back by a giant dam, unable to escape into the ocean.

Then 10% of those who admit their mistakes actually move past the shame and fear. We’re afraid to make more mistakes so we stop trying new things. Every year we have fewer big goals. Fewer mistakes that can turn into valuable mentors.

We could’ve had a life of art and experience. A life where we become fully ourselves instead of a death filled with lies about all of our fake successes. But the brain is the worst tyrant and wants us to die shackled in the dungeon it created for us.

I can tell you this: Everything in my life that I am happy about it is the product of a huge mistake. I hope 2012 is filled with mistakes. I hope I admit them. I hope I can move past the shame. And, please god, let me stop blurting out “No!” in the middle of movies or dinners or just walking around in the street, horribly embarrassing the people I love the most.

  • “No”, is something I blurt out a lot as well so to counter it, I blurt out “Yes!” when those mistakes that once captivated me are rectified and have become the stepping stone to better success. Like you said, mistakes are future mentors 

  • Sussan

    Whatever your past has been you have a spotless future.

  • JH

    Boy, did I need to hear this. Thanks!

  • I’m extremely grateful for mistakes, obstacles and obstructions arising in life. Catalysts for real change!

  • Noiz22

    James I love you.

  • If that dress is on the Kardashians, that would be miss-steak-making-a-huge-mistake. But when the mother monster does it, it’s original. Mistake is in the eyes of beholder I suppose.

    I envy you. I wish I could say ‘everything in my life that I am happy about it is the product of a huge mistake’,  I’ve made mistakes that I still hate myself for, I still regret and feel shameful today.

    So please dear god, no more same fucking mistakes.

  • ama

    I groan aloud at least a few times a week thinking of something stupid I’ve said or done, and am momentarily paralyzed with embarrassment. Somehow it helps to know I’m not the only one, and that this happens to people more successful than me.

  • Luca Corinaldesi

    Thank you Mr Altucher!

  • Dowdog1

    So true, James, once again you added value to my day!

  • Anonymous

    I do the exact same thing all the time. My mind wanders and I mumble something like “No” or “I can’t believe I did that” and people look at me and say “huh?” or “what the fuck did you just say?” and I pretend I was talking about something on tv or something. It’s very embarrassing and almost always about the same regret (a relatively minor failed entrepreneurial venture).

    I actually didn’t have a problem admitting failure in the aftermath, but whenever the topic of the startup comes up in conversation I start squirming and looking for an exit. I was very proud at the time I launched, so I publicly announced I was working on it and now that it failed and people ask me for updates I am very embarrassed. I hate admitting defeat.

    I know the best thing I could do is just own it. Just say confidently it wasn’t the smashing success I had hoped for, but I learned a ton and am already working on several other ideas (all of which is true). I’m getting better at it, but I have always been the sort of person who likes to work out of the spotlight. The past failure definitely made me gun-shy but I am regaining my confidence and am planning to launch my second product very soon. The truth is that had I just built and never launched publicly I would have gained about 10% of the total perspective about product development and marketing that I have now. So despite the embarrassment, I realize that it was not a mistake to go forward with the launch and I encourage anyone with something they are considering launching to go ahead 100% and not worry about embarrassment (obviously I’m not advocating taking dangerous risks). No matter the outcome you will learn a ton, and probably make some valuable contacts and friends that can help you if this idea doesn’t pan out.

    Then again, who knows? You may just succeed.

  • Myg

    Great post. For me, shouts of “no!” are sometimes substituted with groaning grimaces and clutching my face in the palm of my hand.

  • My mother once told me that one night I just sat up in bed, apparantly still in my sleep, and blurted out in a distressed tone “You can’t deduct 20 from 20” and then just went right back to bed.

    That’s been a guiding factor in my life. I shudder to think if where I’d be if she had not told me that story. The semi-awake me had it all wrong and the awke me knew that kind of thinking had to be banished.

    The reality is that you can deduct 20 from 20. Even if you’re left with nothing you can still start over again. My goal is to always be able to start over again regardless of past successes or failures.

    Despite a studying the differences between goals and objectives while in graduate school, I still don’t quite understand the difference. But I do know the difference between the road that leads to success and that leading to something otherwise.

    The problem is that the challenge is in following the “otherwise” road. Mistake or not, that’s where the excitement is and you never have to admit that mistake if you can take the experience and spin it into something useful along some other path in the future.

  • BigBuddha

    Best. Post. Ever.

  • cool post! really

  • EYC

    Awesome post as always. Not until recently have I truly come to believe that as kids, we had (or should have) a “right” to make mistakes. Or at least parents should allow kids to make mistakes. 

    I wonder when we grow out of that and started fearing mistakes like the plague. It seems that a lot of good stories came out of making mistakes as a kid, like riding your skateboard off of a garage roof and learning what a horrible idea it was. But you had to try it as a kid right? hahaha.

  • Anonymous

    What a man you are. Really. Such courage and encouragement you give, cuz i’ve been there too – usually standing at the kitchen counter reliving mistakes when my whole body jerks out a gigantic NO and startles my boys and the dog.
    James, i wish you the HAPPIEST 2012. May your blessings abound.

  • Rich

    No is a word that people should learn to use more often. It could eliminate a lot of frustration and waste in resources.

  • Mohan gupta

    Wonder if you could write faster than i can read. Knowing there wouldn’t be any more blogs for today, still come back to your page to check. Has anyone ever fantasized about converting thoughts into blogs, omitting the writing, formatting step?

  • Wow! Right on! 2011 was a year that I realized a huge financial mistake I made a decade ago.  As hard as that is to admit, better now than never. 

  • How strange… you are the first person I’ve known to do this too.  Am reading Will Power and find the underlying instincts re this are quite helpful… you might too

  • We could’ve had a life of art and experience. A life where we become fully ourselves instead of a death filled with lies about all of our fake successes. But the brain is the worst tyrant and wants us to die shackled in the dungeon it created for us.”  Are you kidding me right now?  I’m posting this on my wall (actual, physical) and will read it daily.  I love your work/words James.  

  • P Jaunne

    ” I hope 2012 is filled with mistakes. I hope I admit them. I hope I can
    move past the shame. And, please god, let me stop blurting out “No!” in
    the middle of movies or dinners or just walking around in the street,
    horribly embarrassing the people I love the most.”  

    Goodness this resonates with me in a big way. I grew up being brainwashed to be fearful of making mistake and failure, etc etc..  Or maybe it’s just my own personality, or both.  Whatever.  It’s not until my own business blew up big time, which I am still trying to recover from, did I realize the value of mistakes.  It’s very painful but finally I woke up to the realization that mistakes are actually really valuable, they are priceless.  Yes, I also blurted out a loud “NOOOO” out of nowhere (to people around me) once in a while when the memory of my mistakes bubbled up to the surface.  Regardless, I wish I made tons of mistake when I was in high school, tons more when I was in college and whole lot more afterward.  Instead was I too busy avoiding mistakes and failure, and end up having to play catch up with the art of making those mistakes now. (“NOOOOOOO”)  Anyway, another great post. Thanks.

    • Anonymous

      Me too.  I know 2012 will be full of mistakes for me.  May we all have the courage to admit them and move beyond them. Life is too short and I have wasted way too much energy obsessing over past mistakes.

  • I do the same thing, beating myself up for mistakes from many many years ago. I may have learned from my mistakes but it seems forgiving myself for making mistakes is another matter entirely

  • I admit my mistakes, and I do it when someone will listen.  Many people really don’t give a crap your mistakes and the worse of people like to gossip about your our failures and laugh.

    I don’t believe there is any “starting over” – nope – you can only continue, with whatever you are at the time. 

    Plus if I spent my time looking over every mistake I made, well then I would be missing out on today.  Who has time for that?

  • A little off topic, but the caption to the image says “Miss Steak or mistake?”. We would have to say 100% not a mistake, and some marketing genius. 

    Lady Gaga knows to how get attention, and continually breaks tradition and norms to gain her that much attention.

    There is a reason she has 17,181,000+ Twitter followers.

    Pure genius. Miss Steak, not mistake!

    • If Twitter was invented in the 80s Michael Jackson would have had 100,000,000 followers at least. Wake me up when Lady Gaga does something that Madonna didnt do 30 years ago.

      Genius? Errr No.

  • What if you keep failing?  http://bit.ly/s12GGw

  • Bless you James, you’ re one of my wins for 2011. This is so accurate I know u wrote it for me specially!!!!

  • Olapguy

    I do it too, I thought I was the only  one.  Only I do not verbalize the “no”, I just physically feel the pain and the shame and I turn my head real fast trying to make the shame go away.

    • Anonymous

      I do that too….

  • Danwiltshire

    James, this is a beautifully aphoristic line: “…the brain is the worst tyrant and wants us to die shackled in the dungeon it created for us.”   I think I’ll be able to quote you forever with this.

  • xo .

    You are the real Beastie Boy James.

    Watch this vid for nostalgic bliss (it’s worth watching to the end). 

  • At least you don’t blurt out ‘Fuck!’ or randomly squawk like a parrot (seriously) like a friend of mine did.

  • BrianBalk

    Today I discovered a good thought.
    Something to say before sleep each day:
    “Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.”
    It was attributed to Dr. Seuss.

  • You also have to forgive yourself.  I’ve made some mistakes, admitted them, etc but still find myself angry about making the mistakes.  I think forgiveness is the most difficult aspect of moving past the mistake.


  • James, may your 2012 be full of more blunders that lead to happiness.  Post reminds me of the Gretzky quote that says the only shots you miss are the ones you don’t take, or something to that effect.  

  • There is nothing as discouraging as that sinking feeling that just won’t go away. 

  • Al Toy

    James, what’s a mistake? Here is an example. I just started reading your blog. Bought both your  e-books. Came across one of the posts about the free pdf. Wasn’t privy to slogging thru all the rest of the posts to see if anything changed about the offer for free pdfs. Sent off an e-mail requesting the pdfs and no response, not even a canned response saying the free pdf offer is not available after a certain date.

    Is that customer service? Will I be buying anymore of your e-books? NO! Where is your follow thru? This tells me more about what you are than all the rest of your posts. I have an idea for a book and you were my go to for getting it published (not anymore) because its an ez technique for confidence. EZConfidence.com Remember that. It works? 5 minutes a day for 5 days. Confidence Done! No platitudes that you disdain, but half the time your advice is just that, platitudes.

    By the way this technique also works for shame, blame, procrastination etc. I’ll be publishing the book on my own.

    • Chris

      So you’ve just encountered one mistake and that’s all you need to know about a person to pass your judgement? Good for you. I just wonder if you’re going to offer your precious advice for free being such a marvelous guy. Anyways the mail offer works, but it’s always easier to blame others than admit your own ignorance… Oh wait, don’t tell anyone. You made a mistake :-) How’s that for your credibility…

  • Passagemakers

    My doctor prescribed Wellbutrin for me. Oddly enough, it had similar results. True story. Sorry to all you big pharma haters…

  • Tim


    How else would we learn without mistakes?  Working through the mistakes of life is all the learning you ever need to do.

    Have a Happy New year


  • Thank you for making this site very interesting! Keep going! You’re doing very well!