It was a sad day in the hallways of my son’s high school last week. Students were in a state of mourning for “Tom,” a popular senior who sported a near-perfect academic record. He was also a starter on the varsity basketball team and involved in many school activities. He was a shoo-in to be accepted by a number of top colleges.
Then, overnight, Tom became a poster child for the case of EQ over IQ. Notwithstanding his stellar record of making consistently intelligent decisions throughout his young life, his “emotional intelligence” (sometimes referred to as “EQ”) failed him when he most needed it.
The good news is that Tom did not die. By demise, I was referring to his being expelled from school for having drugs in his backpack. Worse, there apparently was evidence that he had taken it one step further and was actually selling drugs.
The news stunned the entire school community. I didn’t know the young man personally, but I had heard enough about him to be aware that he was respected and popular with students, faculty, and parents alike.
So, the question everyone is now pondering is: What on earth was an intelligent, all-American young man like Tom thinking when he brought drugs to school? I can only conjecture that it was a combination of not thinking much at all (at least not about the possible consequences of his actions) mixed with a bit of senior omnipotence.
This sad and shocking incident struck a bell with me, because I have long been fascinated by the ramifications of “The Big Mistake” — a mistake so major that it can destroy such precious assets as reputation, marriage, and earning capacity. In extreme cases, it can even cost a person his life — and often has.
I want to be very careful here to avoid leading anyone to draw false inferences from what I’m about to say. For all the reasons I’ve written about in the past, I believe it’s important, and healthy, for a person to be action-oriented. Bold, consistent action is the preeminent factor that determines how an individual’s life plays out.
Further, risk-taking is implicit in the term action-oriented. Success is not possible without risk-taking action. A near corollary to this is that success is not possible without failure. Thus, the wise person takes consistent, bold action and embraces failure because he understands that each failure brings him one step closer to success.
So, how does a person differentiate between bold action that leads to The Big Mistake and bold action that leads either to success or “healthy” failure? This is a sticky wicket, to be sure, but I don’t believe it’s as complicated as it appears to be on the surface.
Common sense is always the best defense against making The Big Mistake. But what makes it tricky is that the form of The Big Mistake can vary widely. Some Big Mistakes are made impulsively, on the spur of the moment, while others are made after considerable reflection. In the latter case, the problem usually is that the person allows his intellect to get trampled by his emotions.
A classic example of The Big Mistake being made on spur-of-the-moment emotion would be when the legendary Woody Hayes, Ohio State’s head football coach for twenty-eight years, punched a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl. The morning after the incident, Hayes was fired. He lived out the remainder of his life as a sort of pathetic figure whose legendary reputation was forever marred as a result of one impulsive moment that led quickly to The Big Mistake.
Then there were the mistakes of John DeLorean (automobile fame), Dennis Kozlowski (former chairman of Tyco International), Michael Jackson, and a seemingly endless stream of politicians.
And how about the Jews who didn’t take Hitler and the Nazi Party seriously enough in the 1930s and chose not to flee Germany? Perhaps theirs was the ultimate Big Mistake, and most paid a horrific price for their error in judgment. Interestingly, those who took action and did flee Germany when they had the opportunity to do so were spared.
I say interestingly, because it’s an excellent example of why taking action is not in conflict with avoiding The Big Mistake. In the case of holocaust victims, it was inaction that was the culprit. But the fact is that the key determinant in avoiding The Big Mistake is whether or not one uses good judgment.
How can you improve your chances of avoiding The Big Mistake?
First, you should constantly remind yourself that, as a human being, you are not omnipotent. If your gut tells you something is wrong, don’t ignore it because you believe you will “somehow work it out.” There is a fine line between rational risk-taking that feels right and irrational risk-taking that feels wrong. Trust your intellect and your “gut” rather than your emotions.
Second, people usually get a second chance. In the case of my son’s schoolmate Tom, he has the opportunity to convert The Big Mistake into the most positive learning experience of his life. At his age, and with all that he has going for him, he has a lifetime to overcome the mess he’s created for himself.
If Tom has learned the lesson of just how costly one major error in judgment can be, he has the opportunity to become something greater than he might have been had he not made The Big Mistake in the first place. And someday he will have the opportunity to reap extra dividends from his experience by telling his children and grandchildren about how a foolish mistake almost destroyed his life.
And so it is with all of us. If you’ve made The Big Mistake and are now suffering as a result, you already have the tools to overcome it. I’m not talking about resources, but resourcefulness. If you need help in picking yourself up and moving forward, I suggest you read — every day — Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem If, especially the part that says:
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold On!’”
But if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid The Big Mistake until now, your best bet is to be ever vigilant about not falling prey to it in the future. By all means, take action … lots of action … bold action — and don’t be afraid to make digestible-sized mistakes. Failure is a stepping-stone to success, but The Big Mistake can be a stepping-stone to irreversible disaster.