Afraid to make a mistake? Don’t be.
According to author Alina Tugend, the best way to become an expert in your field is by making mistakes, lots of them, but to cooperate with the brain on learning from them. In her new book, Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, explains the science of making mistakes and why learning from them is vital in a culture of perfectionism. Tugend has been a journalist for nearly 30 years and for the past six has written the ShortCuts column for the New York Times business section. She has written about education, environmentalism, and consumer culture for numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and Parents and is a Huffington Post contributor. I have the honor of conducting an exclusive interview with her for Psych Central.
1. I was very intrigued by the research and physiological components behind making mistakes? Could you briefly describe why dopamine is an important contributor to learning from mistakes?
Alina: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we process errors. Dopamine neurons generate patterns based on experiment — if this happens, that will follow. The Iowa Gambling Task, developed by neuroscientists helps prove this point. A player is given four decks of cards and $2,000 of play money. Each card tells the player whether he won or lost money, and the object is to win as much money as possible.
But the cards are rigged, with two decks paying out small amounts of money, like $50, but rarely causing a player to lose money. The other two decks have high payouts, but also high losses. So if a player pulls from the first deck — the one that gives low but steady payouts — she will come out far richer in the end. It takes an average of 50 cards before people began to pull more regularly from the more profitable first deck, and about 80 cards before they can actually explain it.
But by hooking up players to a machine that measured the electrical conductance of their skin, neuroscientists found that players became more nervous after taking only 10 cards from the less-profitable decks — although they weren’t even aware of it.
This is due to dopamine, which figured out the patterns before the player’s brain registered it consciously. When scientists watched a patient undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy while playing the Iowa Gambling Task — with local anesthesia but remaining conscious — the dopamine neurons immediately stopped firing when the player chose from the bad deck. The patient experienced negative emotion and learned not to draw from the deck again. But if the choice was accurate, he felt pleasure of being correct and wanted to do the same thing again.
People who produce too little dopamine in their bodies, such as those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, tend to learn more from negative than positive feedback. But once they took medication that boosted brain levels of dopamine, they reacted more strongly to positive feedback than negative feedback.
2. If you were to give a perfectionist instructions on how to accept her mistakes more easily and learn from them, what would they be?
Alina: In some ways, perfectionism has become a catch-all phrase. People who are conscientious and have very high standards aren’t necessarily perfectionists. And there is certainly nothing wrong with striving to be the best in certain areas. The trouble is when we believe that we can be perfect at everything, and if we’re not, we’re a failure. When mistakes, no matter how small, are a crisis. These are super (sometimes called maladaptive) perfectionists.
For those kind of perfectionists, it’s necessary to internalize the concept that the point of a task or job is not to do it perfectly the first time, but to learn and develop. Super-perfectionists need to be honest with themselves — even if they publicly bemoan this attribute in themselves, do they secretly think they’re right in their approach to life and everyone else is wrong? Why is it so important to be flawless?
Perfectionism is not necessarily something to be proud of. Research has found that those high in perfectionism did worse on a writing task than those lower in perfectionism when judged by college professors who were blind to the difference in the participants. It may be because maladaptive perfectionists avoid writing tasks, and avoid having others review and comment on their work to a greater extent than non-perfectionists — and therefore don’t practice and learn.
These super-perfectionists are motivated by a fear of failure rather than the opportunity to learn. They consider anything less than 100 percent — say 98 percent — inadequate. If this sounds like you, you need to rethink whether your perfectionism is serving you well.
Super perfectionists can try to break tasks down into more manageable bites, so they don’t feel overwhelmed. They can learn to prioritize and set deadlines, so they won’t get subsumed in every project to the detriment of other needs. They can work on getting feedback at an early point in a project to get a reality check. Most of us fear hearing criticism, no matter how constructive, even if we’re not uber-perfectionists. But the more we get it and find it’s not as frightening as we think it will be — that we can survive, and yes, even learn! — the easier it is to hear it in the future.
3. Are there any exercises we can do to remind ourselves that perfectionism is a myth and that error is part of being human?
Alina: We really do need to keep telling ourselves — and others — that perfection is a myth. It’s not easy in a culture that prizes the concept of effortlessness, success and results over the process. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that every time we take a risk, move out of our comfort zone and try something new, we’re opening ourselves up to potentially making more mistakes. The greater the risks and challenges we take on, the greater the likelihood that we’ll mess up somewhere along the way — but also the greater the likelihood that we’ll discover something new and get the deep satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.
We also have to acknowledge that screwing up doesn’t feel good. I’m not saying we should cheer when we err. But we need to figure out what went wrong, apologize and make amends if necessary and move on. If we spend so much time beating ourselves up, we’re not learning any lesson from the mistake.
In most cases, the mistake may feel bad in the moment, but those feelings pass. Often days or weeks later we can’t even remember what the error was.
I’ll end on a quote from a 10-year-old boy who was learning to ride horses and not doing as well as he wanted. Although he was disappointed in where he placed in a few competitions, he told a reporter, “If everything always went well in riding, why would it ever be fun? If you were always perfect, nothing would ever be amazing.”