Mistakes: Your New Best Friends?

From time to time I make some sort of awesomely glaring mistake (usually in writing and sent out to the world), and sometimes I notice it and sometimes it’s pointed out to me. Years ago, this horrified me.

Filled with embarrassment, I’d want to slink into a hole and hope that maybe no one noticed, like that time I was taking an exam in school and somehow slipped and fell into a pile of desks as I was making my way to the front of the room to turn in my exam. As I laid there, desks piled on top of me, I considered for a moment that maybe if I just stayed there no one would notice. I then considered the fact that perhaps people would get up and come over to see if I was alive, which would have been worse. I climbed out of the pile and pretended nothing happened.

Of course I still had a question to ask on the exam, which I did when I got to the professor’s desk. She answered and then with a bit of hesitation (perhaps because I had not acknowledged the very loud desk assault that had occurred) asked, “Are you ok?”

“Fine,” I said.

After I left the room I hid in a small library space, fearful that the incident would be the topic of discussion for the rest of the year.

But it turns out somehow almost no one paid attention. It happened so quickly that my crashing into the desks and being covered by them happened before anyone even knew what had happened. There was a loud sound, but people were concentrating on their own exams, and if they looked up, I was already buried.

A couple of people mentioned it to me in passing, but that was it. This incident, which I assumed would be the mortifying cornerstone of my existence from that day forward, was nothing more than a blip in time that left me a little sore for a few days.

I wish I could say that event changed my mindset about the importance of perception, but it didn’t. Years would pass where I still feared making mistakes in front of others, a trait I’d harbored long before falling into the desks.

Perhaps most interesting was the way I handled these mistakes when they were public – meaning anyone saw them. I felt angry and defensive, which looking back now feels fairly ridiculous. But it was extremely serious to me then. I hated making mistakes, especially in front of other people. It made me feel like a fool, like I was mediocre, like I wasn’t smart. For the most part, to me nothing was worse.

It wasn’t until I began to research how the brain works that I started to truly understand the power of perception and how it could make or break someone. I had chosen to see mistakes as shameful and degrading – and that mindset had caused me to improve at a much slower rate, something I didn’t know then.

I realized that stifling my rate of improvement was much more horrifying to me than mistakes, and so I began to look at what the payoff had been for buying into my self-created fear and loathing of making mistakes.

Turns out I couldn’t find proof of a positive result. Self-preservation? Nope. It turns out you look rather silly when you react irrationally because you made a mistake. Appearing stronger? Not really – the fear of making mistakes causes hesitation, which makes one come across as weak. Ironically, we admire people who make mistakes in public who can take them in stride, make corrections, and move on without a sense of shame.

There’s an inherent perception that we won’t be accepted by others if we make mistakes; that somehow, our mistakes will be a sign of weakness and we’ll become outcasts. In a primal sense, that was the equivalent of death, so…

And yet what really seems to be the issue is not the mistakes themselves, but how one reacts to them and handles them from there. Everyone – EVERYONE – makes mistakes. And yes, sometimes mistakes can cause setbacks and disappointment, but what seems to set people apart is the ability to take mistakes in stride and learn from them. Those who can do that seem to move ahead a lot faster, and those who can’t seem to go around in circles and deal with more frustration, not just about the mistakes themselves, but about a lack of progress.

It’s ironic that having issues with making mistakes might just be the thing causing that lack of progress. I won’t speak for others, but I can personally attest to that myself. The less I worried about making mistakes and the more I was ok when they happened, the less I hesitated and felt stuck and the faster I moved ahead.

After all, mistakes are just information. They tell you when you need to slow down, or speed up, or have another set of eyes, or think in a different way, or try a different method. That’s all.

Being ok with making mistakes isn’t the same as being irresponsible – I’m not saying that one shouldn’t take the time to consider the potential positive and/or negative consequences of a decision, particularly if it has long-term consequences. I’m merely saying that the fear of making mistakes, coupled with the inability to cope with them, is a recipe for slow progress. And usually a lot of unnecessary negative emotion.

So I don’t mind mistakes anymore, and I’m happy when someone points them out to me. To me it just means people care enough to say something, and that’s awesome. I always learn from my mistakes, and if I can do something about them, great, and if not, why would I spend brain time and energy on that when I could be moving forward otherwise?

All in all, if you have something to share with the world, it’s much more important to spend your energy on that. Every thriving, successful professional made mistakes and is still making them. And yet they’re still thriving and successful. So I’ll leave you with this: which is more important to you, thriving and being successful, or not making mistakes?

The choice will always be yours, and that choice will have a significant effect on how you live.

So get out there and do things, mistakes and all! Choosing to thrive and to be successful over my obsession with a mistake-free life was one of the best decisions I ever made. It not only propelled my career in a much faster way, I became immeasurably happier as a person. 😉

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