About 7 years ago, my 73 years old mathematics teacher who lived across my house in Saudi Arabia, shared a life lesson that I have yet to fully absorb.
I remember clearly, it was a hot day (~39°C) and I was at the local tandoor (clay oven) ordering five freshly made bread with cheese. Back home, my family was awaiting my arrival on the dinner table.
This was pretty much my ritual each day for lunch and dinner. I would jump into my slippers, speed walk to the tandoor, order my bread, put the fresh bread into my bag and speed walk back home.
That day at the tandoor, I ran into my mathematics teacher, Sir Afzal. I was in Grade 8 at that time. We acknowledged each other’s presence and awaited our order. After a few minutes, Afzal filled his order and began walking back home. Given that I was leaving for Canada in a few days, I quickly grabbed my bread and caught up with him to say farewell.
After a few back and forth comments, to end the conversation, I asked him “Sir Afzal, do you have any tips you want to share before I go off to Canada!”.
Sir Afzal paused, put his bread down, and as he reached into his pocket to find his house key, he said “I taught you that in Mathematics you are successful when you correctly solve for X with minimal mistakes. However, in real life you will fail many times before you really figure out your X. Mistakes will teach you more than any formal education. Look out for them as they are like hidden treasures of knowledge. And in the end, the value of your X will depend on how you passed those mistakes and failures”
Honestly, at that time, I did not know what he meant by but I noted it down because of the vibe he gave off.
Fast forward, after 7 years and making many mistakes, I can say that I have only begun to realize what he really meant. So often we hold ourselves back from achieving great things only because we are afraid of mistakes. Whether it be starting a business, writing a book, changing your career path, expressing your love to someone or being “realistic”. Risk and reward are correlated and life is too short to always live conservatively.
Mistakes and Lessons Learned
Below are the mistakes I have made and the respective lesson they taught me. Which ones resonate with you?
- Afraid of Making Mistakes – Mistakes are like hidden treasures in life. Whenever they happen, acknowledge them and learn from them. Otherwise, you are just wasting time. I realized that I was afraid of making and accepting mistakes. I was afraid of facing the consequences and most importantly the embarrassment. Thankfully, my mentor made me realize that, “I will miss 100% of the shots I don’t take“. As long as you learn from your mistakes, it is okay to make them.
- Being Lazy & Daydreaming – Daydreaming usually results in procrastination. We begin to daydream but yet not DO. Instead of daydreaming about doing it someday, start doing it today. There is a healthy level of daydreaming, but just like procrastination, it can easily get out of control. Don’t wait till tomorrow, do it today. Time is the most precious and finite commodity anyone can have, thus, use it very wisely.
- Being a Perfectionist – The truth is that I held myself back for almost 6-months before starting this blog because I wanted to “perfect” it. However, the more I learned about successful people the more I realized that none of the were perfect. They definitely aimed to be perfect but realized that they will never be. Thus, they began their journey before they were ready.
- Thinking that Ideal Past = Ideal Future – Life is beautiful because of its ups and downs. The shadows of the past cannot darken the door to your future. In fact, we grow stronger every time we fail. These failures gives us the chance and the ability to rebuild ourselves.
- Getting Everyone’s Approval – So many times we give up what we really want due to the noise surrounding us. In school, we get bombarded with “specialization” and media forces us to follow the trends. However, the hardest prison to escape is the fear of what other people may think of you. If you want to be a web designer, then go for it regardless of what your peers or parents think of it. Don’t live someone else’s life. Invest in yourself and take time to talk to yourself, without external interference.
- Focusing on Things I don’t Have – Your thoughts turn into actions and create outward momentum. Thus, if you focus on things you don’t have you effectively allow them to play a bigger role in your life. Don’t be anti-war, but rather a peace promoter. Don’t be anti-drugs, promote healthy well being. The more we focus on our problems (without focusing on the solution) the more we let them dictate our lives.
- Limiting Thoughts – When we are kids we believe anything we can think of. I wanted to be spiderman when I grow up. The key lesson here is not what you think but how you think about it. As kids, we defined our own possibilities and when adults told us that we can’t do that we cried and rebelled until we “grew out of it”. We get so rational and conservative in our thinking that we merely become average.
- Thinking that Humans Are Logical – What separates humans from computers is that we are driven by emotions, not logic. Entrepreneurs start companies because they believe they will win despite the statistics proving otherwise. Sadly, some people end their lives because their emotions tell them to do so. To really be able to enjoy life as a human being, be aware of your emotions and where they lead you.
- Not Appreciating the World for What It Is – Unfortunately, there always will be hate, racism, murder, war etc. However, just like death, it is an inevitable part of humans. The media only highlights the negatives. There is more love, smiles, and gifts to be shared than the negatives, thus, focus on spreading these positives. After all, if you want to change the world you have to first accept it for what it is.
- Being Around Negative People – Simply put, life is too short to be spent among people who do not share the same values as yourself. You will grow more by being around 10 like-minded driven friends than with 100 average friends. This was one of the toughest things for me. However, once you isolate yourself from people you don’t want to be around it gets easy to deviate towards who you do want to be around. As the saying goes, “You are the average of the five friends you spend the most time with”.
- Letting society define “success” – For many years I defined “success” in terms of the society’s perspective. That is; get good grades, work hard, get a stable job, work your way up the ladder etc. However, the day I realized that definition of success is something more than that, my perspective changed. You cannot let imaginary standards of success guide your life. Have your own definition of success and strive for that.
- Letting society define “happiness” – I am guilty of thinking that happiness follows success. There is so much noise that distorts the very definition of happiness. I thought that happiness was having enough money to buy materialistic things such as a lamborghini or a mansion etc. That is the image society and media try’s to paint. However, a mentor of mine made me realize that one will never be happy if he/she continues to define happiness according to external expectations. Happiness is truly from within – your thoughts and your view of happiness.
If you were to ask me what has tought me the most, the answer would be the list above.
Acceptable Mistakes and Being a Student of Failures
Lastly, this does not mean that one should make mistakes whenever possible. The best way to identify if you are making the right mistakes is to monitor your intentions. As long at it won’t end up intentionally hurting someone, you are fine.
In summary, mistakes are inevitable part of life. You will make them regardless of the fact if you acknowledge them. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Farraday and countless other leaders made countless mistakes before they discovered something revolutionary.
How many times have you heard about personal failures of Einstein? Or Mark Zuckerberg breaching user’s privacy? Or about Thomas Edison’s experiments with electric chair? Success stories highlight and celebrate their successes, yet one can learn equally as much from their failures and mistakes. Many of these leaders themselves agree that mistakes were inevitable and they learned a ton from them.
Likewise, you and I will always be students. They say experience is the hardest teacher, first you get the test and then you learn the lesson. Similarly, throughout life we make inevitable mistakes. Thus, the question then becomes, do you have the courage to accept your mistakes? Do you have the wisdom to learn from your mistakes?