Life Is A Mistake (And So Is This Title)

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want to write a brilliant story with the one life they’ve been given.

So why do so many of us fail to put down on the pages of existence the kind of lives we aspire to? Perhaps we are caught up in the paralyzing prison of our minds, analyzing each action before it is lived, trying to avoid any mistakes. Maybe our life-stories end up stranded between our ears.

We need to write the stories of our lives now, and save the editing for later…

When I began UnTangled in January, I discovered the posts tumbled out of me. When I sat at the computer, it was like a dam burst, and a flood of words would pour forth.

But in recent weeks, the writing slowed down. Each post materialized like a slow trickle. I still enjoyed the writing. But deep down, I wondered if my words were drying up.

Last week, I realized what was happening.

I was editing as I wrote.

And I was reminded writing and editing are two separate processes. Trying to edit while you write is fatal to the creative event. It’s like a white-hot sun drying up the river of generativity and spontaneity and passion. Editing is critical to producing things of beauty in the world.* But its place is after the writing.

Yet, I think many of us are writing our life-stories, and trying to edit them as we go.

I think we harbor the misconception that our lives get messed up by bad choices. But I think most of us with stories still-waiting-to-be-told have not made bad choices—we’ve made no choices. We aren’t writing crummy stories—we’re simply not writing our life-stories at all. Because our existential pens are frozen in midair, with a kind of paralysis by analysis.

And our lives are drying up because of it.

So, why do we continue to edit? Why don’t we just brazenly write the stories of our lives and save the editing for later?

I think we are constantly guarding against making mistakes.

We wake each morning, and we begin planning, rather than living. We become like directors of our life-stories, rather than actors in them. We try to orchestrate the perfect day for ourselves and our families and our co-workers. We balance work and kids and finances and we constantly second-guess our choices, wondering who we are hurting and which person in our life will end up holding a permanent grudge.

We are afraid of offending anyone, so we sift through our thoughts, and we settle on the safest words—the dialogue least likely to attract negative attention. Having been taught we must not upset others, we edit out anything visceral and real.

We avoid mistakes, because they may reveal parts of us we wish to keep hidden. Because, you see, our mistakes make us vulnerable.

Our mistakes reveal the cracks in our armor. They reveal our imperfections. They advertise us as broken, fallible creatures. And we are terrified others will decide our mistaken actions mean we are a mistake.

Instead of being in error, we are afraid others will think we are an error.

Even the dictionary tries to shame us for our mistakes, defining mistake as “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.”


Can you argue with a dictionary?

Maybe it’s a mistake, but I think I will.

I think the vast majority of mistakes we make have nothing to do with crappy reasoning, acting careless, or being ignorant. I think we make mistakes because mistakes happen.

They just happen.

So, we must end the ceaseless editing of our lives. We must enter into writing an incredibly rough draft, mistakes and typos and all. If we can do so, we will make mistakes, but we will learn from them, and our stories will come alive with fallible creatures living redemptive stories in a crazy world.

In his song, “Alive In The World,” Jackson Browne writes:

I want to live in the world,

Not inside my head.

I want to live in the world,

I want to stand and be counted…

I want to live in the world,

Not behind some wall.

I want to live in the world,

Where I will hear if another voice should call

To the prisoner inside me,

To the captive of my doubt,

Who among his fantasies

Harbors the dream of breaking out,

And taking his chances

Alive in the world…

With its beauty and its cruelty,

With its heartbreak and its joy,

With it constantly giving birth to life

And to forces that destroy,

And the infinite power of change

Alive in the world

I started editing while I was writing, because I suddenly felt like my words mattered. You were telling me they matter. And I don’t want to steer you wrong. I don’t want to make a mistake.

But there’s something I want even more than avoiding my own mistakes.

I want to live. I want to write my life story with passion and hopeful abandon.

And I want you to do so as well.

I want you to stop editing as you go. I want you to live in the world, instead of inside your own head. I want you to find freedom from the captivity of your doubt, and I want you to walk tall into a world crying out for a good story. I want you to live a life fully immersed in a world rich with both heartache and joy.

If you are ready to begin writing your story, if you are ready to begin the joyful making-of-mistakes that any life contains, you will join the army of courageous souls who march through my office every day, deciding the worthwhile cost of really living is the vulnerability of mistakes:

Couples who finally, tenderly, share the heartache of a honeymoon that wounded them rather than exhilarating them.

Young men who publish their thoughts in the school newspaper and smile peacefully as the taunts roll in, because it feels so good to be swept up in the river of really living.

Young ladies who eat thick sandwiches, no longer worrying about the thickness of their waist, because life tastes good and its time to eat it up.

Elderly men who have waited for years to say “I love you” to their children—because for some reason no one ever said it to them, and the idea makes them queasy—finally saying the words and feeling their hearts throb with life in an entirely new way.

Join us.

Stop trying to live your lives just right. Instead, just write.

And when you end up needing to make edits, when you end up needing to apologize for a mistake—and you will—do that with your whole heart, as well.


*About the Blog: The next post will focus on the process of editing, especially surrounding ourselves with good “editors,” who we can trust when they tell us we messed up, and entering into the “editing” of an apology with our whole hearts.

 Share Your Comment! Did I make any mistakes in this post today? I hope so, and I’m wide open to hearing what you think! Please feel free to share your ideas. And don’t worry about making a mistake!

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

24 thoughts on “Life Is A Mistake (And So Is This Title)

  1. Wow what a wonderful, deep felt article. I especially liked the poem you added for effect or affect I always get the two mixed up. I write as an affiliate marketer and as a student so I do find my self correcting my articles while writing them. I do need to stop doing this so that the meaning that I want to convey will be in my writing. Thanks for the article.

  2. Another great piece of writing today. I really enjoyed reading it very much. Thanks for sharing. Have a nice day.

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  3. I needed this today, Kelly. Both in my writing, and in my life, I am guilty of editing as I go….and I find that the more I just let it HAPPEN – the more I just let the words pour out onto the page, the more I let myself be whoever I am – the more I connect with others, which is really what I want. How ironic that my desire to be “perfect” so I am “worthy” of connection is the thing that actually puts a shield between me and the people around me. I’m going to try to live, and write, without editing as I go today. Thank you so much for this.

    • Kim, I hope you’re having a mostly unedited day! 🙂 For what it’s worth, I always really enjoyed your 5-minute Friday posts, which I’m guessing were your least edited.

      • Thanks, Kellly 🙂 You inspired me to return to 5-minute Fridays (on a Saturday – close enough!). It’s a good exercise in not-having-to-be-perfect, and a reminder for me that “good enough” really truly is good enough.

  4. Wow, just fitting for me right now. I’m realizing more and more that I am so often paralyzed by indecision, and wondering if a choice is “right” and thereby rarely actually making any decisions. Thanks! I always enjoy your posts.

    • Catharine, As alway your faith and peace are a blessing to the rest of us. I hope you are feeling well today.

  5. I DO need to stop editing my life as I write–literally and metaphorically. On the literal side–something I just did out of habit–I totally agree; it is best to write and let the words flow straigt from out hearts. editing should be done later. Metaphorically, however, I believe it’s essential to first determine governing values and plan to live by them in key areas: physically, spiritually, socially, emotionally.
    We have to know where we stand before we can move forward with purpose; otherwise, we are prone to aimless wandering. We may be having fun but what contributions are we making?

    Improvisation has its place but there is no substitute for knowing who we are and what we stand for. Onward to just anyplace making mistakes would be an adventure, but what kind? Some adventures are more worthy of our time than others. So, onward and upward according to God’s will is my goal. He is the Director–when I act in accordance to His will, as reflected in my values, then I can stop second guessing choices. Mistakes–really, adversity of any kind– then become a part of the process, but instead of becoming paralyzed by them, we become stronger because of what we learn from them–thus the process of living growing and making plenty of mistakes becomes the journey of living a godly life.

    With that said, I need improvement. I know fear. How can I write my life story–an actual book–when I fear the how others will react to the truth as I experienced it? So, “I sift through [my] thoughts, and [I] settle on the safest words–the dialogue least likely to attract negative attention. Having been taught [I] must not upset others, [I’ve] edited out anything visceral and real.” When I then read this “edited” it is no longer real.

    I’ve been writing a watering down version of my journey because perpetrators I’ve forgiven are still living. It’s one thing to tell my story–it’s quite another to reveal the parts others have played in that story–especially when they are in denial and so many are unaware.

    I do this in my day-to-day interactions too. Avoiding conflict/unpleasant topics is multi-generational trait. I have worked hard to become a transition figure but it hasn’t been easy. I finally opened up to my therapist. I still don’t feel safe opening up with others. I have made many mistakes others have reacted to that keep me from attempting honest, open, respectful dialogue–carefully choosing my words seems to help this is why I do it.

    I’ve been writing a watered down–edited–version of my journey because perpetrators I’ve forgiven are still living. It’s one thing to tell my story–it’s quite another to reveal the part others have played in that story-especially when they are in denial. I desire to “live in the tension” but I am avoiding the perceived “mistake” of writing an honest story–literally and metaphorically– because revealing the parts “I wish to keep hidden” does put me in a place of immense vulnerability.

    I have made many avoidance mistakes–this has slowed and sometimes stalled progression. What can I learn from these mistakes? How can they help me? They show me that I am not living according to my values, but how do I change? How do I free myself from the paralysis of fear and begin to truly live within the tension of faith? My honest response to this post–I hope–is a step in the right direction. Thanks for an inspired post that helped me take this step.

  6. I do appreciate the way you share your thoughts on life and have re posted to my Facebook page countless times. It is so easy to begin to analyze something that is working beautifully because we strive to become better. Isn’t it fun to realize that just living our lives and sharing what we experience is often just the simple thing someone else needs to hear. It is not rocket science it is just life.

  7. Eaglerose, Diana, Kathy, So glad the post resonated and grateful for your encouragement!

  8. Hello
    I admire your self-insight, and your passion to grow and encourage. I found your blogs last month and have been prompted to comment but im really rarely inspired to do much in that way. But if you want comments on mistakes I am a bit of a purist on that topic.
    Thank you for your contributions, your speckles of rubies, diamonds and other gems. And your mud and sputter and grit. I cry, I laugh, I feel something from what you say. And for that I am very grateful. Mistakes define me. The dictionary is absolutely correct. We can all do better. We must. We don’t. Careless, unreasonable, ignorant, biased, distorted etc.,
    But its true, the quiet crime is never trying. For me fear gives way to apathy. It’s just too hard. I’m too weak and broken. I want to quit and i feel and briefly entertain the possibilities that death allows. for me to stop. And I so want to make this short life right, so much. And i wont, i dont.
    I always fail to realize that its all just not about me or up to me. I am not an island although I cultivate that dream. Its so hard to connect to something real about myself and feel it. Let alone share it.
    Thank you and those like you who help me care, when I don’t; think, when I forget; and give when I can’t take one more inauthentic breath. Like saturday mornings. caio

  9. Absolutely beautiful! Your words resonate with those of Brene Brown, who has done signficant and profound research on shame and vulnerabiity. What I hear in your words is don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not about editing as you go along, and shame is all about that because we do believe we are our mistakes, so we try to avoid them at all costs and lose ourselves in the process. Thank you for writing these words and honoring the process of creativity.

    • Laura, Nice insight! Brene Brown’s work has had a huge impact on me. I link to her first TED Talk at the end of the “Marriage Is For Liars” post. Also, her work on shame is reflected in “JoePa and the Death of Story.” Thanks for your comments!

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  11. this makes me want to cry! and that is it! i want to be part of those souls, Dr., and i am going to be!

  12. I’ve been following you for a couple of weeks now and your posts continue to be very timely for me. I just moved out of my inlaw’s house. After three years of living with family, finally me and family (husband and three year old son) have a place of own again. These last few years have been tough, and I should be happy. But instead it’s 2:16am and I can’t sleep because I’m terrified that we’re going to fall flat on our faces (despite all evidence to the contrary). I should stop being scared and remember that this is something we’ve worked for. I should be happy. But I can’t sleep…

    • Jill, I can relate to your experience, and I know so many others can, as well. It seems that something shifts in that anxiety when we find a way to stop trying to convince ourselves we won’t fall flat again, and instead begin to trust that if we do, there is nothing to be ashamed of, and we will pick ourselves up again. May you grow in that conviction about yourself!

  13. Ha! This is the exact problem I am having with my blog. My life in general is a little more carefree, perhaps because my sphere of influence is so small and the people around me are very forgiving. But the blog is public and I am so worried about leading people astray and saying something wrong taht I don’t want to write most of the time. Thanks for pointing this out.

  14. I love reading your articles and this one didn’t fail. It especially hit close to home for me, given my current life situation. After a long time of “editing” I’ve finally decided to live. I couldn’t be happier with my life. I finally feel passionate about life. I know mistakes are bound to happen eventually, but at a certain point, living the cautious life becomes stifling.

  15. I have finally realized that if I am editing, I am not among friends. Not that I can be rude or hurtful toward my friends, but that I can be my mostly uncensored self. It’s a helpful gauge.

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