I recently had one of those 48-hour stomach bugs. Nasty business. I felt sick, and I knew it was going to happen, but I still tried to put it off. Then I got sick of feeling sick, so I just imagined it happening, and sure enough, it did.
I felt so much better afterwards that I wondered why I’d try to put it off so long. I’ve learned to apply the same principle to making mistakes. In the past, out of fear I tried my hardest not to screw up, but eventually it happened anyway.
My new aim in life is to stop trying to put if off and get it out-of-the-way as soon as possible, then move on.
It’s okay to be afraid
The turning point in my life came when I realised that I couldn’t escape fear. It’s hard-coded into every one of us. It serves a powerful evolutionary purpose, so instead of trying to deny it I realised the only way forward was to embrace it and accept it for what it was.
I now understand that feeling anxious about something is fine; it’s a sign that you care about what you’re doing. And if you don’t care about what you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
“Feeling nervous about something is fine, it’s a sign that you care about what you’re doing. And if you don’t care about what you’re doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Life keeps on going, whether we make mistakes or not. A mistake is an opportunity to learn, a chance to improve, and a great way to build trust with others because it shows them that we’re human. We all make mistakes, and a well-balanced person will be able to relate to you when you stick your foot in it.
The kind of person you definitely don’t want to work with is one who is unforgiving of mistakes. They’re not worth your time, so weed them out early on by ballsing something up. See this as a way of adding value to your life by removing those who are just waiting for you to show a weakness so they can pounce on you. You don’t need those people in your life. None of us do.
Learning to fail
Learning how to fail is difficult, but the easiest way I’ve found so far is by doing something new. Just do something you’ve never done before, that way you can easily give yourself permission to fail – you’ve never done it before, so of course you’re going to make mistakes.
When you’re trying out something new, this is the perfect opportunity to make the dumbest mistakes you can — get them out in the open early and reap the rewards of the new knowledge you gain.
But what about the things we’re supposed to be good at? Our jobs for example? Well, the journey of a professional is one of continuous self-improvement. Take my profession for example: in web design things move fast, and goalposts can move on a daily basis.
I can’t possibly know everything about building websites, and I never will. But what I love most about my job is the opportunity to learn something new every day, and being open to making mistakes accelerates this process.
Still not convinced? Read this wonderful comic by Stephen McCranie, which sums up my perspective perfectly with this pithy quote:
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”
Sometimes when we do the things others expect us to be good at, we put ourselves under undue pressure not to screw up because we feel like we have to behave like an expert, and that experts don’t make mistakes. But by doing things that are outside of my expertise I’ve found it easier to let go of this limiting fear. By coming to view my failures in a different light, I’m slowly coming to accept them as positive experiences (whether personal or professional), instead of something I have to dread.
Treat decisions as experiments
I recently read a great article about the science of failure, and how you should view each decision as an experiment. No good scientist gives up straight away if they don’t get the results they were after. Why should any of us?
I’ve found taking a scientific approach has helped to liberate me from the pressure I put myself under to make the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ choice, and it also gives me data I can use to make better decisions in the future too. And that’s something that trying to avoid mistakes will never give me.
The best thing about being sick was knowing that I was on the path to getting better.