How to Succeed While Making Mistakes

At every time in history people have had to face difficulties and confusion, and they have made big mistakes. We are encountering no more obstacles than our ancestors did, even though it may seem that way sometimes. Whatever our situation at this moment, whether it seems fortunate or unfortunate, we can choose to meet it as an opportunity to work with our mind. Then even a painful error can become an opportunity for awakening, an opportunity to transform our confusion into wisdom.

Particularly in challenging times, we need to remember that the path of wisdom is a mixed bag. On one hand, there is a process of transformation taking place: in some areas, we are clearly overcoming obstacles and experiencing some level of psychological liberation. In other areas, however, we are still struggling, still engaged in negative, unproductive actions, and therefore experiencing the negative results of that. We are not always perfect and our life includes blunders and burdens of various kinds. One of the greatest yogis of our time, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, says, “Erring and erring, we walk the unerring path.”

So, when we realize that we have made some mistakes in this life, or that we are caught up in a fit of emotion or fear, we should not take that to mean that we’re not making any progress or that we are somehow being unsuccessful in life. We may occasionally feel that we’ve failed, but so long as we are working with our mind, applying whatever wisdom we can, we can regard that as a success. As long as you make an effort to recognize and work with your emotions, thoughts, and any tendency to commit negative actions, you are actively engaged in practicing mindfulness and awareness. Whether you fail or succeed in a particular instance, in either case you will actually have been successful. You will have succeeded in practicing. From this perspective, our failure is part of what makes up our accomplishments. We usually don’t see this.

Success on the path of life does not come from being perfect. You cannot expect that each time a turbulent state of mind arises, the “normal” thing is to immediately realize its true nature. You cannot say it’s not going to be possible for you to do this at some point, but it is not the norm, either. In the same way, if you expect that each year your income will increase and your business will grow, that your next home will be larger than your last, and that you are building toward a more and more secure and comfortable future, living the American Dream, so to speak, you are mistaking the ideal for what’s normal. That is not only a mistake, it also sounds somewhat boring, like a feel-good movie where you know right from the beginning exactly what’s going to happen.

In actual life, anything can and does happen. That is the truth of impermanence and change, and it is what makes our life such an adventure. Remembering this and taking it to heart allows us to be more pragmatic and courageous at the same time. We need to move away from chasing after an impossible ideal and begin to connect as closely as possible to our life as a personal journey, one that is full of surprises and fresh opportunities to make it meaningful.

We need courage in the face of our mistakes

We need warrior-like courage to be able to face and accept defeat from time to time, and to transform our suffering and confusion into wisdom. Like champions in boxing or the martial arts, we have to accept some defeats and be willing to learn from them in order to be victorious in the end. Sometimes, when we’re down it feels like the world sees us as a punching bag and we are taking hits from all sides. That is when we need to remember that loss, disappointment, sadness, and pain are part of our life, and the lives of everyone. We are no exception. Many others are in worse shape right now, and when we have some sense of guidance, when we have some skill in working with our mind, we can see that we are better off than most. It is worth taking a moment to let that thought touch your heart.

You make your own path in this life. It is your journey to take. How it goes and what it looks like is up to you. Be patient, however, and let the result come in its own time. You cannot see a minute-by-minute change in your heart or mind; it takes a little time. On the other hand, don’t think of success as being too far away. Then you might think, “I’ll never reach it, so forget it.”

It is helpful to remember, too, that as much as our acute intelligence, our insight, is critical to our journey, we need to bring our understanding into the world with a sense of genuine compassion. It is only through compassion that we can manifest what we know and understand in a way that will truly benefit others. No matter how sharp your intelligence is, don’t forget to filter it through the heart of compassion. Don’t push your wisdom onto others. It doesn’t work. If you really want to help someone, just let your compassion blaze.

If you want to get something across to another person, whether it is the wisdom of enlightenment or how to do a job more efficiently, compassion seems to be the gateway to communication. When your heart is lit with compassion, when you are beyond self-interest or self-gratification, your message will get through. Your colleague will listen to you. The world will understand you. Your aspiration to benefit others will actually be realized.

When wisdom and compassion work together, you bring heart to your life and life to your heart. So when the road gets rocky and your future looks uncertain, make your journey personal, not theoretical. Make it genuine, not philosophical. Make it ordinary, not religious. Then you will really be engaged in the path to wisdom.

Making a Mistake Meaningful: An Exercise

This exercise is a chance to take an old mistake and turn it around. Of course you can’t go back and change the past, but you can definitely take it as an opportunity to work with your mind. Be sure to allow yourself enough space and time, about 15 minutes, to do the exercise fully, so that you can really benefit from doing it.

For the writing part of the exercise, it’s preferable if you can write on a piece of paper with a pen or pencil, as you will tend to feel more grounded that way, and more connected to what you’re doing.

1. Think of a mistake you made today or yesterday, something you did that did not sit well with you. Maybe you have avoided thinking about it due to the embarrassment or regret that comes with this memory. Just look for a moment. Write down a few details about it, in just a few words.

2. Now set down the paper. Don’t read what you have written. Take a deep breath in, and a deep breath out.

3. Regarding this “mistake,” what do you wish you had done differently? Take up your paper and pen again, and write a few words about this. Don’t go on too long or get stuck in an old familiar storyline. Just a couple of sentences will be plenty.

4. Now set down the paper again. Don’t read what you have written. Take a deep breath in, and a deep breath out. Notice that this moment of awareness is complete in itself. There is no mistake here, no need to change anything about this moment. You’re doing fine with this exercise.

5. Look around the room, remaining relaxed. Make a heartfelt aspiration that when a similar circumstance comes along (and it will) you will be mindful and remember to relax, open your mind, listen for possibilities, and do your best. Good luck!


Some of the teachings given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in this article were originally published on LionsRoar.com under the title “Walking the Unerring Path.”