This is the first of what is intended to be a series of posts about useful distinctions I make between some common words and phrases that others use interchangeably.
When I hear “I made a mistake! Everybody makes mistakes!” it usually tells me that someone has been caught doing something wrong that they can’t hide or get away from anymore, and they intend to minimize away what that something was. When I have a chance, I talk about the difference between a mistake and a bad choice.
A mistake is an accident, made through oversight, misunderstanding, or insufficient or incorrect information. A classic example (often used by Dr. Laura Schlessinger) is reaching into your sock drawer to get black socks and, by mistake, you grab blue socks instead. It’s an honest mistake. The proper response to a mistake is to say “Whoops, that wasn’t what I was trying to do,” and then to do what you can to correct the mistake.
A bad choice, by contrast, is a choice to do something known (at some level) to be wrong. Examples of bad choices are easier to come by — they’re usually the things people are calling mistakes. Violence and abuse, dishonesty, theft, etc. are all bad choices. The proper response to a bad choice is something like “What I chose to do there is wrong. I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. How can I make this right?” and then doing what you can to make it right and to never do it again. In a perfect world, this would happen all the time, but this is not that world. In this world, people argue about what they did, that there was nothing wrong with it, until they can’t anymore, and that’s when they say the “Okay, I made a mistake! I’m sorry! Everybody makes mistakes!” thing.
Now, if we just exchange “bad choice” for “mistake,” an interesting thing happens; we get “Okay, I made a bad choice! I’m sorry! Everybody makes bad choices!” Which is true. Everybody does make bad choices. Except that this statement carries an implied “… therefore, I shouldn’t be held accountable for what I did, because everybody does it.” And that’s not okay. Everybody makes bad choices, and they pay some kind of price for that, no matter how much they may try to avoid any negative consequences. The easiest payment is to just own the choice, accept responsibility, pay the price, and be done with it, but, as I described above, the whole effort of this approach is to avoid that price. Which means a much harder path, paved with denials, deception and mistrust, and their offspring.
So this distinction is useful because it encourages the clarity between the morally insignificant mistake, and the very morally significant bad choice. It makes it harder for people to hide their responsibility for what they’ve done, which benefits them, even if it does cause more discomfort initially.
So, what are your thoughts? Does this distinction seem useful to you? Comments are open.