Embracing The Beauty of Mistakes

Premier Pulse     November 2023

Colon_336x336By Roberto Colón, MD, system chief medical officer, Premier Health

One of my cherished Disney movies is "Meet the Robinsons." In a memorable scene, Lewis attempts to fix the notorious peanut butter and jelly gun, only to witness it comically explode across the room. Initially, he's overwhelmed with apologies, embarrassment, and a sense of failure. Yet, those around him cheer and celebrate his "exceptional, awesome, spectacular" mistake. This moment reminds us of the forgotten joy of making mistakes, as our journey into learning often begins with errors. Life is an exceptional educator, and we grow by not always getting things right.

How did many of us learn our most painful lessons while growing up? We learned not to disturb a hornet's nest to see what happens or that hot surfaces can burn when touched. Our lessons were learned through trial and error, and many of us in medicine follow this same path, striving to be right while discovering mistakes along the way. Even as attending physicians, we sometimes allow small failures to occur for the sake of education. I'm not advocating for causing harm to patients but rather embracing the learning opportunities that arise when we discuss errors.

Despite a lifetime of learning through mistakes, we've become fixated on being right. Our educational system rewards perfect grades and penalizes errors. In medicine, the pressure to be infallible is immense. We've stopped recognizing that being proven wrong allows us to learn something new and unlearn something incorrect. Instead, we've grown afraid of making mistakes, becoming defensive when challenged and reluctant to change course.

Our attitudes toward others' mistakes can become aggressive and punitive, fostering an atmosphere that discourages innovation due to the fear of failure. What if, instead, we openly celebrated our mistakes? How many errors could we prevent? What could our culture achieve in terms of innovation and safety? How much more trust could our patients have in us? What if our focus shifted from defensiveness to understanding, turning blame-seeking into a quest to learn from unsuccessful attempts?

This shift toward openness can transform an organization, enhancing safety for both patients and the health care team while also fostering a culture of innovation where every mistake is seen as a stepping stone toward progress. It builds trust for everyone involved. The onus is on us, as physician leaders, to set the stage where everyone feels empowered and valued for speaking up, sharing their lessons, and fostering an environment that celebrates the beauty of mistakes and the innovation it spurs.

Back to the November 2023 issue of Premier Pulse

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