“It’s not only OK to make mis­takes, but it is valu­able to dis­cuss them openly”

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Joe Hildebrand - Words by DANNIELLE MILLER

It was like I was in a night­mare. I just froze in front of mil­lions of peo­ple. I was in the cage, fight­ing, and my op­po­nent was throw­ing punches at me, but I couldn’t move; they were just slam­ming into my face… I went from be­ing the big­gest thing to come out of Aus­tralia to fight in Las Ve­gas for the Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship [UFC], to be­ing the worst fighter ever.”

In 2007, Soa “The Hulk” Palelei, a mixed mar­tial artist who com­peted in the heavy­weight di­vi­sion for the UFC, lost his first ma­jor fight in the third round by a tech­ni­cal knock­out. His con­tracts with the pro­mot­ers were can­celled im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards.

“Be­fore the fight, my ho­tel room was full of peo­ple,” says Palelei. “Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties in­clud­ing Adam San­dler and Kevin James had been high-fiv­ing me, telling me I was the man. Af­ter­wards, I sat in my ho­tel room all alone and thought, ‘ Now where is ev­ery­one?’

“The whole flight back to Perth, there were so many things in my head. I was abused as a child; beaten up. I was home­less for months as a kid. And now? I felt even more ashamed and use­less.”

Why is this feel­ing of shame, which of­ten ac­com­pa­nies a mis­take, so de­struc­tive? “It can dam­age a per­son in ways no other emo­tion can,” says Dr Natalie Fer­res, who has a PHD in psy­chol­ogy and re­searches emo­tional in­tel­li­gence, self-man­age­ment and re­silience. “Guilt or re­gret can be fine if you take ac­count­abil­ity and move on, but if some­one ex­pe­ri­ences enough shame they can be­come self-loathing to the point they be­come self-de­struc­tive. It can even cause neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal dam­age. We know some of the neu­ro­chem­i­cal cor­re­lates of shame and how it lit­er­ally gets stuck in our brain cir­cuitry.”

For Palelei, his ini­tial re­sponse to fail­ure was to com­pul­sively read the on­line hate di­rected at him. Oh, and to eat: “At one stage, I was 160kg.”

Crime writer Candice Fox has also strug­gled with her feel­ings of shame. The years of re­jec­tion she ex­pe­ri­enced when try­ing to find a pub­lisher led her to be­ing “in the big­gest hole ever. I’d been writ­ing since I was 12 and had

Like so many who look back at their mis­takes with new­found aware­ness, Bier­cuk says he even­tu­ally gained clar­ity by choos­ing to see what had hap­pened from his col­leagues’ per­spec­tive, and by re­fram­ing it as a learn­ing op­por­tu­nity. “I’m con­tin­u­ing to re­fine my abil­ity to mit­i­gate my nat­u­ral ten­dency to just give an an­swer, and think more about how I can build con­sen­sus,” he says.

For Palelei, shame was re­placed with grit, op­ti­mism and a goal: to re­turn to the UFC. “One day I woke up and I was so heavy I could hardly breathe. And I thought, ‘You’ll die like this, dwelling on that mis­take,’” he says. “So I snapped out of it. I knew I had to get back to the UFC. If I could just get back, I’d know ex­actly what to do and how I was go­ing to do it. You know how some peo­ple say you have to crawl be­fore you walk? I was sprint­ing. I’d walk into the gym and just de­mol­ish ev­ery­thing. I was push­ing, hus­tling, grind­ing. And ev­ery night I would visu­alise what would hap­pen when I stepped back into that cage.

“I was sin­gle-minded; al­though I was win­ning ti­tle belts in other events, it was all about the UFC. Af­ter I won three fights they still said, ‘No way!’ Af­ter five, six, seven more wins, they said, ‘No.’ And I thought, well at least they didn’t say, ‘No way!’ Just ‘no’ is bet­ter. Af­ter my 10th win, they said, ‘OK.’”

Palelei re­turned to the UFC in 2013, six years af­ter his ini­tial de­feat. This time, he won. He then went on to win four out of his seven UFC fights (in­clud­ing one where he fought while suf­fer­ing from a frac­tured rib).

Para­dox­i­cally, it’s the ex­act­ing world of sci­ence that may pro­vide a model for how we can best foster cul­tures where it’s not only OK to make mis­takes, but valu­able to dis­cuss them openly. Bier­cuk ex­plains, “[In academia] there is a huge value placed on trans­par­ent, bru­tally hon­est dis­cus­sion. Ev­ery­body is work­ing to find the so­lu­tion to some prob­lem; some­body puts up an idea, some­body else says it’s wrong for the fol­low­ing rea­son, and ev­ery­body is kind of OK with it. If I say some­thing to col­leagues that’s in­cor­rect, some­body will show I’m wrong and I’ll have to ac­cept it, move on and know this hap­pens to ev­ery­body.”

In other words: we all make mis­takes. One of the ways we can move past these is by shar­ing our less-than-pos­i­tive sto­ries. This is not only in­struc­tive as it helps oth­ers from mak­ing the same er­rors, but it’s pro­tec­tive as it min­imises the dark shame that can make a per­son feel as though they’re bad or worth­less when, re­ally, they’re only hu­man.

To over­come her feel­ings of fail­ure, Fox started run­ning (“that was so good for my men­tal health”) and de­cided to hone her craft. “I went to TAFE to study cre­ative writ­ing, then later to uni; I did an hon­ours and a mas­ters,” she says. Fox also shifted her per­spec­tive: “I went from pic­tur­ing this big club of writ­ers that I was ex­cluded from, to think­ing, ‘How can I get bet­ter at this?’”

Even­tu­ally, Fox se­cured an agent and within days had two ma­jor pub­lish­ing houses fight­ing over her books. She is now pub­lished by Pen­guin Ran­dom House and has won two Ned Kelly Awards for her nov­els Hades and Eden.

But it’s not so much the mo­ments of tri­umph that make sto­ries such as these ap­peal­ing, as it is the shar­ing of vul­ner­a­bil­ity. “Our big mis­takes, aired to oth­ers, make us ap­pear more hu­man, par­tic­u­larly if we show we’ve learnt from them,” says Fer­res. “Also, many peo­ple re­spond pos­i­tively to those who ad­mit mis­takes. Pre­sent­ing an ide­alised ver­sion of our­selves sep­a­rates us from oth­ers and we miss out on true con­nec­tion.”


TEST­ING TIMES Sci­en­tist Michael Bier­cuk learnt he needed to work on his peo­ple skills.

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