A mother is driving her young son home from kindergarten and asks him what he learned. ‘Nothing’, he replied.
‘Nothing?’ replies the mother. ‘You didn’t learn a single thing?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘My teacher said you learn by making mistakes and I didn’t make any today.’
The above story is told by American writer Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. It’s a lovely story and one that captures an important point – mistakes are valuable learning opportunities that help us grow and develop.
Unfortunately, us adults don’t always heed this advice. When we err, we may react with shame or embarrassment, thinking, “I messed up, I’m stupid”. As a result, many people go out of their way to avoid making a mistake by resorting to ill-advised safety behaviours – for example, routinely re-reading emails for typos before hitting the send button; rehearsing social or work situations so you are as prepared as possible; procrastinating over decisions in case you make the “wrong” choice; avoiding potential opportunities in your personal and work life, and so on.
The most obvious reason why people fear making mistakes is they automatically associate them with negative consequences, such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, punishment, and so on.
When you were young, maybe a parent used harsh words towards you when you erred. Maybe they were impatient with you.
Or maybe they were perfectly kind but you could see their own fears and anxieties about making mistakes, so you learned to be cautious yourself.
Maybe you had a teacher who responded to mistakes with sarcasm. Maybe the kids in your class mocked you over some mistake or another.
There’s no need to go on a deep-dive through your childhood here. The point is, you learned to be afraid of mistakes, to associate them with negative emotional consequences.
Indeed, everyone has at some stage in their life suffered because of a mistake they made, but some people are more accepting of mistakes than others. It’s important to remember mistakes really are learning opportunities and you cannot learn any new skill without making mistakes.
If you’re a driver, think back to when you learned to drive. No doubt, your initial efforts were stop-start affairs, and you may have initially felt foolish driving around at a snail’s pace, the car stalling and jerking as you tried and failed to change gears properly.
Like learning to drive, trying anything new initially requires being willing to make a few mistakes and to suffer a little discomfort. Remember, just as you learned to be afraid of mistakes, you can learn to not be afraid of them also.
Doing so requires an attitudinal shift: instead of seeing mistakes as embarrassments to be avoided, you need to see them as human, inevitable, and as opportunities for growth.
Above all though, it requires a behavioural shift. To overcome any fear, you must first face that fear. That means instead of trying to avoid mistakes, you must be willing to make them.
For example, you might choose to deliberately make some mistakes – mispronouncing a word in public, telling a joke but getting the punchline wrong, wearing mismatched socks, sending an email with typos in it, and so on.
Similarly, you might decide to learn new skills, try new activities and take a little more risk in your everyday life.
Think of these as behavioural experiments. Beforehand, write down your predictions as to what you think will happen; afterwards, note if your predictions were true or false.
Most of the time, you will see the consequences you fear won’t actually come to pass.
Of course, mistakes sometimes do result in regrettable consequences, but make a conscious effort not to ruminate on any mistakes you do make. Say to yourself, “lesson learned, moving on, no point beating myself up about it”.
The more willing you are to make small mistakes, the more you rewire your brain into becoming more comfortable with mistakes. Over time, your brain won’t associate mistakes with feelings of deficiency and embarrassment; rather, it will associate them with newness, learning and growth. You become less vigilant, more flexible, more relaxed.
Remember the story of the little boy being collected from kindergarten: no mistakes, no learning.