My whole life I’ve been terrified of making mistakes.
When I was giving a talk about Germany in my sixth grade class and the teacher asked me who the chancellor was, it took me a minute to utter his last name — all the while I was stuttering.
When I gave presentations in school, I never veered away from my index cards — not even a word. I made myself memorize the words in their exact order — perfectly.
If I fumbled, I was a failure.
When I started a job in college, the first time I swept the floor, I took an inordinate amount of time. I was worried that if the manager saw any dirt, she’d think that I wasn’t working hard enough to pick up every speck.
When I was accepted to grad school, I thought they could sense my stupidity and lack of skill and send me on my way. (Impostor phenomenon, anyone?)
When I started writing professionally, I was positive that seasoned writers could spot my amateur status in a second. (I still worry about this.)
So if you’ve been afraid of making mistakes, too, I get you. I get it loud and clear.
As does Alina Tugend, veteran journalist and author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. Her book was inspired by her own reactions to a small mistake she made in her New York Times column ShortCuts.
Her first instinct was to deny, consider covering it up and rationalize it away. She ended up fessing up to her editor, which turned out just fine, and they printed a correction later.
But her response bothered her, she explains in the book. So she explored the topic in her column. She wrote about the tension between knowing that mistakes equal learning opportunities and the reality that we’re usually punished for them.
It became a hit.
I just reviewed her book for Psych Central, and today I wanted to share several tidbits from the book because I think they provide a valuable perspective on mistake-making.
The fear of mistakes starts early, Tugend writes. One of the reasons? We say one thing and do another: We say that mistakes provide learning opportunities, but we do everything we can to protect kids from making them.
“While we do not want our children to face ongoing failure to attempt to overprotect them and rush in whenever we fear they might fail at a task robs them of the important lesson, namely that mistakes are experiences from which to learn,” write Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, two prominent child-development experts. “It also communicates another subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle message to a child: ‘We don’t think you are strong enough to deal with obstacles and mistakes.’”
Interestingly, even the people we’d consider cream-of-the-crop perfectionists have made mistakes. Which we also can learn from. Turns out, some saints weren’t so saintly. Tugend writes:
“…As Thomas Caughwell, author of the pithily named book Saints Behaving Badly, put it: ‘The Catholic calendar is full of notorious men and women who turned their lives around and become saints. St. Camillus de Lellis was an Italian mercenary soldier, a card sharp and con man. For six years St. Margaret of Cortona lived as a Tuscan nobleman’s mistress. St. Moses the Egyptian led a gang of cutthroats in the Egyptian dessert. And St. Pelagia was the porn queen of fifth-century Antioch.’ Of course, they went through great suffering to become saints—but the point is, they made their fair share of mistakes. And most of us aren’t aiming for canonization.” (p. 37)
Talk about an incredible testament to how mistakes can become great growing experiences — if you let them.
In the chapter on cultural differences, which looks at North America’s approach to mistakes versus other cultures such as Asian:
“’We translated some textbook pages from a Japanese math textbook,’ Stigler told me, sitting in his office in the rabbit warren that is the UCLA psychology department. ‘There was a really interesting note in the teacher’s edition, and it said: ‘The most common mistake students will make in adding fractions is that they will add the denominators.’ Then it said: ‘Do not correct this mistake. If you correct it, they will immediately stop doing it. But what you really want is for them to take several weeks to understand the consequences of adding the denominators and why that doesn’t work.’” (p. 193)
On her website, Tugend lists several myths about mistakes. Here are two myths that I think are especially interesting:
“Myth: Perfectionists make better workers.
Fact: Many perfectionists fear challenging tasks, take fewer risks and are less creative than nonperfectionists. One research study found that perfectionists performed more poorly than their counterparts in a writing task. It may be that perfectionists so dread receiving feedback that they don’t develop the same writing skills as nonperfectionists.
Myth: It’s good for your children’s self-esteem to praise them for being smart.
Fact: Research has shown that praising children for being smart – rather than for making a good effort – leads them to fear taking on more difficult tasks because they might look ‘dumb.’ Children who feel effort is more important than appearing smart are often more willing to tackle greater challenges.”
Of course, mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. And it’s no doubt a thorny and complex topic.
Many of us know that we must pitch perfectionism. And, of course, we know that mistakes are inevitable, and no human is flawless. (So why do we try to be? I’m also posing this question to myself.)
We also know that mistakes can lead to growth.
The key then is to buy it — and actually act on it. It’s to truly let this perspective — to view mistakes as challenges that should make us try harder and dig deeper — inform our actions.
It’s the tougher, but smarter and more fulfilling approach.