Steve Martin in "The Jerk." Photo Treatment: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why You Should Give Yourself Permission to Screw Up

How does it feel when you make a mistake on something that really matters?

Is it frustrating? Do you want to scream, to kick something, to slap your forehead really hard?

Do mistakes make you angry with yourself? Or is it more like fear – do mistakes make you anxious, tense, worried that you are on the fast track to failure?

It’s small wonder that the prospect of screwing up is met with such dread. Many of us are wary – though not always consciously – of doing things that are unfamiliar or outside our domain of expertise because we might make mistakes.  But the problem is, we need to be expanding our skills and knowledge, continuously striving to grow and improve and going beyond our comfort zones if we want to be successful.

So how can you motivate yourself to approach new challenges with confidence and energy, without fear of making mistakes?  The answer is simple, though perhaps a little counterintuitive:  Give yourself permission to screw-up.

We need to be continuously striving to go beyond our comfort zones if we want to be successful.

I know this may not be something you are thrilled to hear, or even want to believe. You’re probably thinking, “That’s terrible advice. If I screw up, I’m going to be the one who pays for it.”  But you needn’t worry about that. Studies show that when you feel you are allowed to make mistakes, you are significantly less likely to actually make them!

People approach any task with one of two mindsets: what I call the “Be-Good” mindset, where your focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you’re doing, and the “Get-Better” mindset, where your focus is on developing ability.  You can think of it as the difference between wanting to prove that you are smart, and wanting to get smarter.

The problem with the Be-Good mindset is that it tends to cause problems when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult.  We start worrying about making mistakes, because mistakes mean that we lack ability, and this creates a lot of anxiety and frustration.

Anxiety and frustration, in turn, undermine performance by compromising our working memory, disrupting the many cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking.

Also, when we focus too much on doing things perfectly (i.e., being good), we don’t engage in the kind of exploratory thinking and behavior that creates new knowledge and innovation.

Anxiety and frustration disrupt the many cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking.

The Get-Better mindset, on the other hand, is practically bullet-proof.  When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

Just to give you an example, in one study I conducted a few years ago, I found that participants with a Be-Good mindset (i.e., trying to show how smart they were) made lots of mistakes on a test of problem-solving when I made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).

The amazing thing was, the people who had Get-Better mindsets (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new skill) were completely unaffected by any of my dirty tricks.  No matter how hard I made it, these participants stayed motivated and solved the problems correctly.

So when you approach a new task, do you expect (perhaps deep down) to be able to do the work flawlessly, no matter how challenging it might be?  Are you focused on being good, rather than getting better?

If so, then here are three steps to shifting your mindset, and freeing yourself from The Fear of Mistakes:

Step 1: Begin a new project by explicitly acknowledging what is difficult and unfamiliar, and accepting that you will need some time to really get a handle on it.  You may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.  That’s how ability works – it develops. (Repeat this to yourself as often as needed.)

Step 2:  Reach out to others when you run into trouble.  Too often, we hide our mistakes, rather than sharing them with those who could give us guidance.  Mistakes don’t make you look foolish – but acting like you are a born expert on everything certainly will.

Step 3: Try not to compare your own performance to other people’s (I know this is hard, but try.)  Instead, compare your performance today to your performance last week, last month, or last year.  You may make mistakes, you may not be perfect, but are you improving?  That’s the only question that matters.

How about you?

How has making mistakes helped (or hurt) your creativity?

More insights on: Failure, Iteration, Risk-Taking

Heidi Grant Halvorson

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Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, is an author and speaker.  In Succeed, she revealed surprising science-based strategies we can use to reach goals.  Her new book is Focus:  Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.
load comments (39)
  • Erica Wilkinson

    This reminds me so much of an interview I heard Ira Glass give about creative work. It’s been remixed a few times into videos and posters —

    http://vimeo.com/24715531

    http://sawyerhollenshead.com/v

    But it makes much the same argument that you do here — that you have to see the gap between your vision of how it should be, and what your ability is, as something to work out, and learn from, rather than something that should induce despair or self-recriminations.

    http://www.hiremeautomattic.wordpress...

  • Danuta

    Making mistakes is always a hot theme:) we all need to learn to tackle with the issue on our own. What I may say about my way of learning to look at mistakes as opportunities to develop, it is actually the fact that the more you learn and practice the more confident you get. Then you really see mistakes as blessing. They actually are like road signs guiding us safely through our own path. But seeing mistakes this way is really much easier when you have more awareness, more knowledge and experience. At least that’s works about me:)

  • John Grieves

    Thanks Heidi. This concept is something I believe needs to be instilled in budding perfectionists. I have no regrets but I’m sure I would have benefited immensely from receiving this advice from a mentor as a teenager.

  • jmcaddell

    Heidi, this is a subject after my own heart. The Mistake Bank project (http://mistakebank.com) was started in part to help people (and myself) to let themselves try new things, to learn and to fail without stigma. As you note, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to putting ourselves out there and taking a chance. Thanks for your insights.

  • Aaron Morton

    Great article and fall in line with how psychologist Carol Dweck has noticed in the difference school children are spoken to and how they handle failure. Those who are told they are so talented or so good tend to respond badly to failure. Those who are told they worked really hard and are getting better respond better because whilst the former is more ‘outcome identity’ language, the later is more process directed language.

    Enjoyable article
    Aaron Morton

  • Jared Bowie

    My pastor @ LifeChurch.tv, Craig Groeschel, says, “Failure isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.” He argues that when an organization stops failing, they will stop succeeding.

    I think that mindset can be really helpful with giving “yourself permission to screw up”!

    Appreciate your article.

  • Robert Snyder

    The greatest mistake we can make is to not do anything that allows us to increase our human potential!

  • Krisi Johnson

    I found, running the Twitter of a larger organization to be quite intimidating. Paired with pressure from my superior to perform well, I ended up making more mistakes and using less creativity than I was capable of, which lead to bland and misspelled/mis-tagged/mis-pronoun-ed tweets.

    These concepts will be very helpful as I move forward!

  • Branden Barnett

    The best and most interesting songs I have ever written were a result of allowing myself to work in the face of uncertainty and failure. Those songs were mistakes but the “messing up” pushed me past what I thought was possible.
    If you aren’t on the brink of failure, you’re not doing your best creative work.

  • Stacey Mason

    I signed up for an improv class, and it scared me to death! Until it didn’t. It was so freeing to experience the “epic fail”, which was so much funnier than anything that was “thought” to be funny. Since then, I’ve co-created an improv troupe in which we use portions of our session time debriefing what just happened and giving each other powerful feedback. It’s an astounding platform to unpack creativity and innovation in a (safe) environment where failure simply doesn’t matter. Then you take those (improv) thoughts and feelings and learnings into the real work-world and everything just seems to fall into perspective….

  • Jack Lawicki

    Great blog post! I will be utilising this post as I enter my first year of teaching. Yesterday I created a motivational poster which encourages my students to fail by quoting Michael Jordan. You can view it here if you like http://teachertechmate.blogspo… thanks for the great blog!

  • Elle Feldman

    Where do you do these classes? Please share!

  • Luke & Michael

    Terrific article, which can be applied to practically any field. For us, it’s all about improvised theatre!

    http://lukeandmichaelimprovisa

  • kennettkwok

    Great read. I think Step 3 is the most relevant to me. Comparing myself to others has always made me frustrated with myself. Frustration was probably cause of many setbacks because I could not think straight. However, now that I compare myself month to month – I see improvement and motivation.

  • hilmi

    Well, i do agree to the fact that we should give ourself permission to screw up.Reasons being is because by failing or crewing up we learn from our mistakes and actually try not to repeat the same mistake again.

  • Eugene

    Wonderful article. I re-trained as a designer and began working up against tight deadlines with far more experienced designers which I evaluated my own skill-set against theirs.

    After taking a step back and looking at what I had achieved over a year and a half. I now can’t help but tie in that sense of completion and joy you receive as well when you have taken a risk and have ignored all the negativity and self doubt!

  • Benjamin W Roberts

    I’ve never thought about the “Be-Good” and “Get-Better” frame of thought. This is idea is definitely going to change the way I approach new challenges.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Aaron – Agreed. Dweck’s research has influenced how I talk to my 3 yr old. (And to myself.) :)

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Heidi~Love this article. Primo novelist Haruki Murakami writes in his memoir What We Talk About When We Talk About Running that he compares himself to his own standards. I think that distinction is crucial for creatives to move on the continuum from amateur toward but not necessarily attaining mastery. We compare our work to our standards of excellence (which is not the same as expecting perfection). We often say, “Try and try again,” to which I say, “Fail and fail again.” Another creativity consultant and prof. reframes “failure” as “collecting data.” And I have tons of data. :)
    -Jeffrey

  • bombshell

    You can always just keep on trying to be perfect and if you feel kill someone else.

  • Igor

    when doing something new it is important to have a mentor who will guide you, like Heidi just did)

  • Adrijus Guscia

    Good post, similar to what book Mastery by Robert Greene teaches. It’s THE book for creatives and anyone who wants to become great at his craft. Author really nailed the creative process and stages of artist’s evolution. Can’t rave enough about it. Must read!

  • Lisa Stewart

    The Fear of Mistakes Step 4: Go with the mistake. The mistake in some cases can be part of the solution.

  • Emir E. Uckan

    mistakes never happens, only we assume it was a mistake.. like everything else as we fear generates by the lack of knowledge, so ignorance is a bliss , just live it and don’t expect a mistake, so it won’t mean as a mistake.

    My advice is, try to reach some place, (work, or whole day event) get up late, around the rush hours, try to reach your destination without your usual tools/transport.. try something else.

    Expanding possibilities, will make you less nervous if something really happens when people needs you ! Have it as a personal training

  • Sebs | MaximizingMarriage.com

    Great insight!

  • Rune Hvalsøe

    Thanks for the article – it was great!

  • Jantje Bartels

    Hello Heidi,
    just followed your HBR webinar after reading this post, thanks a lot! For me Step 1 is certainly the biggest step for me. I set my expectations very high, too high most of the time, even though I am fully aware of it, it is difficult to change.
    Cheers,
    Jantje

  • Rose

    I really enjoyed reading the article. I am in my final exams month now and i am really horrified of failing the exams. I think that people are not just afraid of making mistakes because of putting themselves under pressure but also from there enviroment. I feel that my familly and my friends expect to be really good that i sometimes shut erverything and then find myself doing nothing.
    I will definitely take the advice to heart and try to deal with screwing up sometimes.

    Excuse me for my bad English, I am not a Native.

  • tepe

    People who respond badly to failure tend to fail the worst, failure is always a lesson, a stepping stone towards the future of success, so why not give yourself a stronger stepping stone(experience), and give yourself a chance to screw-up?

  • Barry L. Davis

    Great insights! Almost everything significant I have learned in life has come with a scare. Here’s a short blog I wrote that supports your excellent post – http://bdavismcdp.wordpress.co

  • Rheo

    Great Article. It’s too bad that the traditional schools still stress right answers only.

  • Cheezy

    I’d say with the number of mistakes in this comment alone, having a “do better” approach will be necessary…

  • Arron

    This is something that I’d already learned through a lot of anxiety and stress and finally came to the same conclusion; but I never really made the distinction between ‘be-good’ and ‘get better’, its a really nice way of putting it. It’s especially easy for a graduate like me to fall into the be-good mind set when trying to prove themselves to potential employers. I wish I had read this at the start of my education and not the end. Great article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=697458668 Rohita Shanker

    What a great article! Pithy encapsulation of the 2 strategies – Do good and Get Better. I’d add that, as with everything else in life, where to apply each strategy is context-driven. There are some situations where it is imperative to be-good and some others which are more exploratory and open-ended where the stakes are not as high, where it is alright to adopt the get-better attitude. I think the skill lies in evaluating a situation and recognizing where to apply each strategy. Environments and institutions designed to educate and mold brains would do well to focus on and reward Get-Better in addition to Doing-good. Let’s also not forget that there can only be a “Better” if there is a “Good”.

  • ganesh

    Awesome Artical make me to think over it more and more. I am Getter-Better mindest guy..

  • hersheyskat

    Power to screwing up – completely agree with the article and am in fact living that pretty much as per the steps –

    – step1:Begin with a new project – left cushy job as banker to start up tech based startup ( no i am not a techy)
    – step2: connect with others for feedback/guidance -Uses startup weekends around India to connect with others and really deep dive into tech stuff
    – step 3: Try not to compare – well the focus is pretty much on improving metrics of the startup vis a vis previous month

    It’s great to be in Get – better mode as soon you start breaking barriers and have fun doing some great stuff

  • Muhammad Amirul Adli

    Wow! Never has screwing up seemed so helpful and beneficial.

    Furthermore as someone who studies in the creative industry, screwing up is inevitable and thus it shows that without mistakes, people can’t push forward as the quote states,

    “We need to be continuously striving to go beyond our comfort zones if we want to be successful.”

    It might not be easy at first but screwing up and making mistakes will definitely help me out in the future to further improve myself and to create better content in the years ahead.

  • Angerbot

    When I screw up, I get very angry at myself. It can be unbearable to the point where I physically slap myself.

    • Angry SOB

      Me too. I’m very easy on people who make mistakes, but if I make a mistake…Oh man, watch out. If it’s a dumb mistake, my frustration and anger get even worse. I launch (and break) things across the room or I’ll slap myself hard. I’ll scream and curse myself out, if no one is around. I once spilled some soda on the kitchen table and I went off. My sister laughed and said, “All of that over a little spill on the table, huh”. Yesterday, I bought the wrong thing from the store. When I found out, I wanted to physically fight myself really bad.

  • fabere

    Great article… thank you. I have a “be-good” mindset most of the time but the get-better mindset makes a lot of sense.

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