A year or two ago my friend Rick told me about a new favourite cocktail of his: Negroni Sbagliato. He explained to me that the sbaglio/the mistake, according to cocktail lore, stemmed from a bartender in Italy reaching for sparkling wine instead of dry gin when making a Negroni. Apparently, there was no harm in this mistake and, instead, a new and delicious cocktail, the Negroni Sbagliato, was born. Pulling the wrong spirit off of the rack resulted in something fizzy, delightful and fun. A new classic. The sbaglio turned out to be the thing, as most mistakes usually are.
Of course there are mistakes that are egregious, harmful, regrettable and even shameful, but, more often than not, in the course of a human life, most of the mistakes we make are relatively benign. Take for example the amount of time it took me to mix up a Negroni Sbagliato for myself. That is anywhere from twelve to twenty four months of precious time sipping on deliciousness that were wasted. It could feel like a shame. But was it a shame really? I don’t know anymore and I don’t because the older I get, the more I am seeing mistakes, both, big and small, differently. Before it was all hard edges and interrogation lamp glares. Now, mistakes are cast in a softer light, with maybe a lovely Instagram filter over top, to blur and soften the edges.
Another thing that softens the edges when we think about our mistakes: the language we use to describe them. I think that’s why I love the word sbaglio. It’s fun, light, frothy; kind of like the Negroni Sbagliato itself. It’s also soft and forgiving from the outset and leaves room for learning and even for joy! It’s like a great Italian guy saying, ‘eh, you made a sbaglio! Relax! It’ll be okay, you’ll do better the next time. Cheers!’. A sbaglio feels so much easier and lighter than the word mistake.
That word – mistake – just screams for tissues, tracks of tears and a dark room which will double as your prison for the foreseeable future. And, sometimes, those things are warranted. There are really big mistakes. But, imagine, if all of those other times, we treated our mistakes for the sbaglio’s that they are: light, frothy and, ultimately, mostly forgivable.
This summer (thanks, COVID!) I have nothing but time to be in my kitchen, slowly take out my cocktail glass and crack some ice cubes out of their trays. I can then watch the red of the vermouth, the orange of the Campari and the rose of the sparkling wine mix and come together to make a new hue the colour of a glorious sunset.
I then get to carefully carry my drink outside to the patio or to the kitchen, put on some music and really taste every element of it. I also get to pretend for a moment that I am in Europe this summer, which, I most definitely will not be! So, was it a mistake not to engage in this delight sooner? Maybe. Is it totally fine, as it usually is, the way everything unfolded? Definitely.
Of course, that is something that could, on the continuum of mistakes, fall at the sbaglio end, if it could even be considered a sbaglio at all. I have made other mistakes in my life, actual mistakes, that I deeply regret because they were regrettable. But, at the same time, without them, I wouldn’t know better and so I wouldn’t be doing better. And that is true for all of us.
What is also true for all of us is that most of the ‘mistakes’ we ruminate upon are, largely and thankfully, harmless. Even though that’s true a good percentage of the time, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on them and consider what we maybe ought to do better next time.
The problems set in when we dwell and when we flog and when we don’t let go. Another problem is our cancel oriented culture. There are swaths of society that are quick and decisive and will cancel someone at a moments notice for a mistake. And some of those cancellations are deserved. Others though, especially insofar as antiracism work, involve people trying and making genuine human mistakes as they do and then ending up getting cancelled as a result. And sometimes, they are not even just cancelled, they are dragged. They are brought out into the town square where they are shamed and stoned learning nothing in the process other than how to stop trying altogether. Learning only how to underground, feel ashamed and be so busy licking their wounds they can’t do anything other than hide.
My mistake pattern used to be (and sometimes still is): I’d make what I perceive to be a mistake, I’d judge it, and myself, I’d kick myself repeatedly for it, then I’d kick myself for kicking myself and then suddenly hours, days and what felt like weeks had passed by and, what had I learned? Not much. When I was gentle and reflected acknowledging a mistake without judgment or shame what did I learn? Well, a lot actually. I never learned through the judgment or the repudiation or the kicking or the shaming. If anything those things slowed my learning down. I did learn though from the quiet reflection. I did learn from thinking about what I’d like to do differently next time and by going deep within to see where I was out of alignment with my integrity.
On her Instagram page, inquisitive_human, James-Olivia Chu Hillman put up a post about our emotions and the sometimes unfortunate decisions we make based on those emotions. She concludes that we need to honour emotions, feel them and then make decisions aligned with our integrity. Our biggest mistakes come when we are out of alignment with our own integrity and, without reflecting, not punishing, but reflecting, on when we’ve been out of alignment, we won’t possibly be able to do better the next time. And, surprisingly, learning that way brings joy. The joy of growth, the joy found in learning, the joy of being better so that we may continually do better.
We don’t really learn when we succeed right out of the gate, or, when we meet our stated goal. There may be some learning as we reflect on our accomplishments, but, human nature is to reflect deeper and longer on where we stumbled and what we maybe ought to have done differently and then to grow from that place. There is a quote from Emma Straub’s book, “All Adults Here”, that says “everything terrible is something that needs our love.”.
Every real, or perceived, mistake we make needs our love. They also need our mercy, our compassion, our willingness to grow and to forgive, others and ourselves, and our ability to move forward with grace when it is time to do so. It seems counterintuitive but when we act in opposition to, or, out of alignment with, our integrity we can actually grow said integrity if we truly reflect on where our values stand and the hurt that ensues when we don’t act from that place. So, cheers to the whole continuum! To the sbaglio’s, and to the mistakes, and may we make and learn from both of them forever! A cento anni!