How Not To Learn From Your Mistakes

man wearing black belt performs flying kick in dojo
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When the bell dinged, my opponent and I bumped gloves in a show of mutual respect. The dude I was about to fight was a lanky, brown-skinned boy with high cheekbones and sunken eyes. He reminded me of Churro, the neighborhood stray dog.  

“Find his weakness!” Sabom shouted from the sidelines. “Find his weakness and go to town!” (Sabom was the Korean version of Sensei.)

I scanned Lanky-boy’s body like The Terminator. I expected a hologram of data to appear before my eyes and reveal my opponent’s Achilles heel. I tried to land a few punches here and there; to connect a kick or two. But lanky-boy dodged each one of my blows.  

“He’s making a fool of you!” Sabom shouted. “Get in there!”

At thirteen, I wasn’t exactly proficient at Taekwondo. (I was a white belt when I entered my first tournament in Santo Domingo.) Nor was I in the best shape of my life. I had voluptuous love handles and pinch-worthy cheeks on account of my frequent Twinkie binges. If my friends and I were the Dominican version of “The Goonies,” I was certainly the Chunk of the group.

Be that as it may, I lunged at Lanky-boy with the fury of a stampeding elephant, only to be consistently knocked down by his flying kicks. I was in rinse-and-repeat mode: I’d get up from the mat and lunge at him, screaming at the top of my lungs Geronimo-style. And again, Lanky-boy would jump in the air, the ball of his foot pointed directly at my face, looking like Liu Kang from Mortal Kombat.

During the final rest period, Sabom wiped away my blood, sweat and tears with a rag.

“You’re acting sloppy, Suazo. Why do you keep lunging at him? Learn from your mistakes!” Sabom said.

The bell rang one last time. And there I was again, going against my master’s orders, attacking Lanky-boy with the same stupefied fervor. Moments later, I was writhing on the ground from a cut he had left on my cheek. The sharp nail of his big toe had sliced my skin open.

When I read this article about repeating the same mistakes, I thought about that day, long ago, when my ass got handed to me by Lanky-boy. In the days following my defeat, I kept wondering, why couldn’t I adapt? Why couldn’t I switch-up my battle technique when lunging at Lanky-boy clearly wasn’t working for me? What had possessed me to act in such a berserk and disorganized way?

Science suggests that my brain picked one of several fucked-up “neural pathways” to follow, which led to my defeat. Seeing as how Lanky-boy was bigger and stronger than me, my brain figured it was probably best to take a beating.

With the exception of Sabom, I was encouraged to make mistakes in my childhood, in my formative years and into adulthood. I was told that learning “the hard way” created a memory that I would summon when faced with the same challenges in the future. It would remind me of what not to do, I was told. So that if someone were to come at me with, say, a flying kick, I wouldn’t just stand there and take it.

Right?  

I would adapt. I would side-step and land a flying roundhouse kick on the back of my opponent’s head like I was Jean Claude Van Damme or something; like Sabom said I could. (Except I couldn’t.)

In my twenties, I was adept at debauchery: one-night stands; chain-smoking; blacked-out nights from one-too-many Vodka sodas. These things weren’t good for me and yet I allowed them to happen on the reg.  

It turned out that, rather than visualizing a new path towards a positive outcome, my brain tapped into its vast repository of bad habits. It sifted through a Rolodex of action-reaction scenarios based on my archived memories and experiences. It facilitated a streak of past errors because it was easiest on the brain itself to do so.

It was a Magic 8-ball at best. Outlook not so good.

Magic8Ball Nah GIF - Magic8Ball Nah GIFs

By now you’re thinking, this bitch is blaming his brain for all of his shitty mistakes!

Well, yes and no.

Ultimately, I was responsible for my mistakes. Most of which were innocuous and forgivable.

But I’m isolating the brain in this argument because it’s helpful to do so.

If we can think of our brains as engines that require a little more oil to function properly, this state of awareness should encourage us to visualize an alternative, positive pathway towards a happier resolution.

Trying to trip-me up brain? Well, I got news for you! I’m not going to have that sixth glass of Merlot!

Of course, it’s not as easy as having a one-sided conversation with your brain. It took me countless hours of looking inwardly to understand why I was making the same mistakes. And the answer wasn’t surprising to me at all: I was going down the same fucked-up neural pathways because it was the easiest way to cope with pain, trauma and fear.  

It was easier to lose the fight against Lanky-boy than to visualize a path towards winning. It was easier to fuel explosive relationships with the wrong people, rather than choosing to be with the right person. It was easier to put off writing or avoid it altogether, for fear of failing at it.

But the thought, I failed therefore I am a loser, is simply that — a thought. According to the late and great Louise Hay, author of “You Can Heal Your Life,” a thought can be changed.  

So the next time you feel the onset of a new or recurring crisis — when it comes bubbling up to the surface on the verge of erupting — I encourage you to side-step and knock it away with a flying roundhouse kick like you’re Jean Claude Van-Fucking-Damme.

Jean Claude Van Damme GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

Invoking new, positive pathways to happier outcomes takes a certain degree of self-awareness. If you’re not there yet, then do me a favor: stop digging your nails into your skin!

One big-toenail-slice-in-the-face is one too many in this world, and I took that one for the team a long time ago (you’re welcome.) 

Now you can focus on doing the inner work required to stop treating yourself like a red-headed stepchild. Trust me, being hard on yourself is the least productive thing that you could do right now. 

It’s okay if you’re not “in the right place, at the right time.” I sure as hell wasn’t for most of my life.  

I’d like to think that I’m there now.  (Unless I’m mistaken.)

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