6 Mistakes We All Make, But Hopefully Only Once


Despite moving to Traverse City in search of a more balanced life, there are times that things still seem totally out of control. But that’s okay, because balance is a relative thing. If you lead a full life, there are bound to be imbalances. Mostly ups, but inevitably some downs – like a chart of the S&P 500. It’s important, therefore, to have a big picture view and long-term outlook, because relative balance can be achieved over time, but it’s unrealistic to always expect perfect harmony.

And how boring that would be in any event! We were meant to take risks and probe boundaries. When you’re pushing the envelope, that’s when good things happen. It’s also when bad things happen, because everyone makes mistakes when trying new things. But the key to progress is to learn from them and move on. As Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

It’s a curious thing that so many people – myself included – make mistakes of the same variety. You’d think that our collective wisdom would have evolved to the point where we know better, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s almost like we have to make these mistakes – once, as a rite of passage – if we want to move forward. But if we keep making them over and over and still expect a different outcome? Well, we all know what Einstein said about that, too.

Here are six mistakes most people make, but hopefully only once.

1. Trusting but Not Verifying

We’ve all heard the phrase, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” but it only really hits home after we’ve fallen victim to someone else’s false promises. Be it the unscrupulous salesman, potential business partner, or romantic suitor, it’s easy to be tempted by a charismatic person with self-centered motives. This snake charmer endlessly extols his own (false) virtues and suggests that submission to his spell will opens doors of opportunity to you. But of course it never works out that way, and association with this type of person always leads to a mess that you’re left cleaning up.

Almost everyone gets tripped up by naivete at some point. That’s because most people’s instinct is to trust in the good intentions and humanity of others. But as the old adage goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” You need to learn from the negative consequences stemming from misplaced trust.

The good news is that there are far more people willing to help rather than hurt, so this isn’t a call to exercise extreme restraint and distrust in relationships. But it is a good idea to trust but verify and do a bit of diligence the next time someone or something sounds too good to be true.

2. Trying to Fit in, Instead of Being Yourself

The pressure to conform is strong. We all want to fit in, but paradoxically the more we try to conform the less we are accepted. That’s because, when we try to fit in, we mask the thing that is most attractive: Our authentic selves. When someone spends their life trying to be something they’re not, they invest an inordinate amount of time in people who don’t care for them in the same way, resulting in unrequited friendship or love. It’s far better to be yourself, and attract like-minded people who appreciate you for who you are – warts and all.

3. Seeking Shortcuts and Instant Gratification

Shortcuts are great. I’m all for better and faster, so if you can teach me how to shave five minutes off my drive, or two steps off my recipe, I’m all ears. But some things aren’t suitable for shortcuts – for example the road to success or the path to weight loss. There is no cutting corners when it comes to difficult challenges. {tweet that}

You’d be excused for thinking that shortcuts exists, however. If you’re like me, your inbox is filled with various get-rich-quick schemes that require little to no work. Slick marketers have built pyramid scheme empires convincing people that they can build significant, relatively passive incomes selling products of questionable quality and effectiveness to their Facebook friends, and then recruiting them to do the same.

The truth is that success is hard and it isn’t guaranteed. {tweet that} And no course, coaching or formula is a substitute for blood, sweat and tears. We all learn this lesson the hard way because the desire for instant gratification is strong, but delayed gratification is the only variety that actually materializes.

4. Burning Bridges

Burning a bridge isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. That’s because there are certain bridges to people, places and things in our past that should be torched. But deciding when to strike the match isn’t easy. “The hardest lesson to learn in life,” according to David Sanders, “is knowing which bridge to cross and which to burn.”

We tend to burn bridges when we’re on the way up in life, when things are hitting on all cylinders and new people are desirous of our time and attention. That’s when it’s easy to forget those who have been with us all along. The problem, though, is that we all have ups and downs in life, and it’s when someone is down that they need to lean on those they may have taken for granted on their way up. It’s okay to burn a bridge. Just make sure it’s not one you’ll need later.

5. Taking a Job because it's the Best Deal, Not because it's the Right Fit

There is a lot of career and professional advice out there that encourages people to “follow your passion.” The thesis is that, if you do what you love, the money will follow. I think that’s a great sentiment, but not always a realistic one. Let’s face it, Bohemian basket weaving is probably not going to pay the bills.

But while money is undoubtedly important, it’s not everything when evaluating a job opportunity. Just ask anyone who chooses one job over another because it pays a bit more, but quickly learns that her boss is an ass and the work is mundane. That person would enthusiastically take the lower paying, but otherwise rewarding gig if offered a do-over.

Money is one leg of the three-legged career stool. Culture and opportunity for growth are the other two.

It’s a hard lesson to teach, and most people need to have a bad job and/or boss in order to appreciate a good one. But considering that so much of our waking time is spent at our jobs, it’s a lesson that must be learned – even if the hard way.

6. Following Someone Else's Dream

It’s impossible to please everybody. By attempting to do so you’ll please no one. That includes the choices you make about the direction of your life – the career you choose to pursue, the people you choose to associate with, the values you choose to live by. You likely have a strong opinion about these issues that are central to your happiness, but someone else likely does, too. It may be your family. It may be your friends. Regardless, it’s a big mistake – but one many of us make at some point in our lives – to follow someone else’s dream rather than our own.

It’s critical to have the courage to chase your own dreams and make the choices that will make you happy (rather than those that someone else will like). We’ve all heard about other people’s deathbed regrets about missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams. Has anyone, at the end of their life, lamented letting their parents down because they decided not to go to law school? It’s your life – live it. 

Learning and Doing

As we’ve discussed before, success in life requires a tricky balance between learning and doing. Spend too much time learning, and you’ll never move forward. But some lessons are too important not too learn. And learning from these – somewhat inevitable – six mistakes is a critical step in the path to progress.

LifeJay Harrington