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