Many of us — though more likely most of us — fear making mistakes. And it makes sense. We live in a mistake-phobic society, according to clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.
Take social media. We’re tempted to become our own publicists, she said. “We curate our persona,” rarely letting imperfections show (hello Facebook). Thanks to our 24/7 news media cycle, the smallest blunders get broadcast and picked apart by readers all over the world.
We also learn as kids that mistakes are bad. It’s better to get the answer right. The right answer leads to higher grades and scores, and greater success. And it’s a competitive world out there.
But mistakes are also valuable teachers, if we can only learn to listen.
One father told Mogel he fought with a pediatrician over his son’s Apgar score (and won). A kindergarten teacher recounted a meeting with two parents who complained the class curriculum wasn’t on the proper track for pre-med.
Mogel’s teen client was afraid to tell his mom he was writing a play. When asked why, he said, “Because she’ll get too excited.”
Mogel has worked with scores of parents who are afraid to let their kids make mistakes. It’s no wonder we try to minimize and mask our own imperfections.
And yet mistakes are essential steppingstones. They’re vital for growth and creativity. “[I]f we don’t focus on process over product, we cannot be innovators. We cannot learn about ourselves and learn about the world.”
Think of trial and error learning. “With no trial, there’s no error and no learning,” said Mogel, also author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus.
And the reality is we’re going to make mistakes, said Alina Tugend, a journalist and author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. “There’s no way to protect ourselves.”
The key lies in how we view mistakes – and what we do with them. Here are several strategies for rethinking mistakes and learning from your missteps.
Acknowledge your mistakes.
When making a mistake many of us deny it, get defensive, blame others or beat ourselves up, said Tugend, who also writes the ShortCuts column for The New York Times. These are natural tendencies. But they also prevent us from learning.
When beating ourselves up, we have a tendency to say everything from “I’m so stupid” to “I’m such a loser.” We view failure as permanent, and success as temporary, she said, stressing the importance of moving away from this sense of permanence.
“Beating yourself up over mistakes is actually a form of vanity, because it’s as though you’re supposed to be good at everything or always know what to do,” Mogel said.
When you make a mistake, take a deep breath and acknowledge it, Tugend said. Remind yourself that mistakes are normal. Perfection is a myth.
Mine your mistakes.
We tend to confuse reasons with excuses, Tugend said. In other words, sometimes we’re afraid to go into the reasons we made a mistake because we worry that we’re just making excuses.
But, sometimes, “there are valid reasons” behind our mistakes. And exploring those reasons helps you make important discoveries and improvements. It helps you set up systems to prevent mistakes in the future.
So explore your mistakes. Do you make this mistake a lot? Tugend said. If you do, how can you prevent it from happening next time? What kind of system can you set up?
If you forget to pay the cable bill every month, maybe you can create a reminder in your calendar a week before your due date, or set up an automatic withdrawal. Maybe your spouse is more organized, and you can delegate the task to them.
System changes have created positive results everywhere from the aviation industry to the medical field. For instance, implementing simple checklists along with instituting feedback and cultivating a culture of collaboration has saved lives, reducing medical mistakes at hospitals around the world.
Distinguish between valid and invalid criticism.
Sometimes we ignore the criticism aimed our way or internalize every morsel, Tugend said. Rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach, try to distinguish between valid and invalid criticism.
For instance, if you misspelled a prominent person’s name in an article, criticism that says you need to be more careful in the future is valid. However, criticism that says it’s solely your fault is not, because the editor and copyeditor also should’ve caught the error. The entire system may need to change, not just your actions.
It also helps to talk to someone you trust. Tell them what happened, and ask for their feedback in figuring out what’s right, she said.
Find a sponsor.
When Mogel works with parents on developing the courage to let their kids make mistakes, she suggests they find “a sponsor or one sane friend,” who isn’t caught up in the pressure for perfection, and “does not feel they have to have an inserted GPS into their child’s brain.”
Find one person who’s relatively unashamed and adventurous – without being reckless – about trying new things in various areas, she said.
“Instead of staying in the habit of doing the things you’re good at, learn something new,” Mogel said. Take a new class. Take up a new hobby. Try a solution that may not work. Practice taking chances and making mistakes.
We forget that mistakes can be instructive. “We know [from the research] that people who are allowed to make mistakes when they learn things often learn deeper and more comprehensively,” Tugend said.
Give yourself the opportunity to focus on the process, mine your mistakes and truly learn.