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.

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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.
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