Ugh! We are so afraid of making mistakes! And this is such a mistake! If we are going to break free of the grip of anxiety we must, MUST come to embrace, respect and even cherish our mistakes. When we are afraid to make mistakes we are fiercely crippling ourselves in this work.

Yeah, I know. This is crazy talk. So much of our life training is about avoiding mistakes, presenting ourselves as capable, even super-capable. We have to be seen as grown-up, in control, having it all together. We relegate mistakes to the realm of childhood or idiocy – the former being forgivable IF you’re still a child, the latter being the worst of all sins for an adult –

But learning MUST include mistakes. Nothing of any value is acquired by avoiding mistakes. No skill, no wisdom, no real accomplishment comes from treating mistakes as a mistake to make.

What does it mean to cherish our mistakes?

Mistake 3

Let’s start with the What Ifs…

Someplace on the road to adulthood we learn that mistakes are BAD. They are bad because other people will think less of us (more about that later in this post.) They are bad because it means that we’re stupid, or careless, or not paying attention, or some mix and match of all three.

We can build a whole “what if” portfolio out of this fear of making mistakes. Let’s list some of them here:

What if people see me make a mistake and think less of me?
What if people trust me less because they see me making mistakes?
What if that person is my boss, or co-worker, or customer, or husband, or a total stranger, or…?
What if I KEEP making mistakes? (as if mistakes were some kind of slippery slope to HELL)
What if THIS mistake is THE mistake – the mistake that utterly ruins (whatever we’re doing)?

I’m sure you can add to this list… I do a lot of business consulting these days (it’s how I’m making money until somebody discovers me as a country singer and puts me on “Nashville” for a season or two.) One of the things that working this much in corporate America has taught me is how many people spend enormous amounts of energy and time worrying about making a mistake.

You can’t blame them! Our culture is SO much about success, perfectly executed performance, competition, etc., that it would be odd if people were NOT stressed over the fear of making a mistake. As I mentioned earlier we learn quickly that mistakes are not to be displayed or betrayed to other people.

We learn it in school when our peers start laughing at us for saying a word wrong, or when a teacher is sharply critical of our pronunciation. We learn it in high school under the relentless pressure of other teenagers, our parents or those teachers I mentioned earlier. We learn it at work. We even learn it from our romantic partners!

It’s way past time for most of us to rethink this whole mistake thing.

Mistake 1

Mistakes are part of the learning curve of our lives

Thinking that mistakes are something to avoid is dangerous thinking. Mistakes are CRUCIAL to the learning curve in anything more complex than learning to dry yourself off with a towel. Mistakes are at least as important as teachers to us as doing whatever we’re trying to do right – and some people think MORE important.

As a teacher (and student) I can testify to this truth. One mistake can do more to help correct process, thinking or execution that five efforts where I make no mistakes. (Weird, yes?) Mistakes can teach multiple lessons in one effort.

In fact it is accurate to say that mistakes make us more skillful. Mistakes are a kind of course correction. Speaking of course corrections there is a brilliant example of this from the field of aviation. Airplanes (as in those big 747/767 type planes carrying hundreds of people) are only rarely ever actually on the precise course they need to get where they’re going.

Isn’t that wacky to think about? This modern technological marvel, flying as far sometimes as halfway around the world, is almost never on course. The pilots and the plane’s computer are constantly making adjustments, modifying and correcting that course. It’s off-course much of the time, yet it still gets where it has to go.

That’s not a bad metaphor for our lives. And we don’t even have an onboard computer… we can’t get where we’re going if we’re not willing to risk some, make some mistakes.

Mistake 6

What are some of the mistakes we’re afraid of making?

Making a speaking mistake in public – in front of an audience (even if it’s just at dinner with our family or friends)
Not knowing something we think we SHOULD know
Not remembering something we think we SHOULD have remembered
Confusing two things
Trying something and completely messing it up – or even partially messing it up
Looking clumsy, awkward or not skillful at something
Asking for clarification when we think we SHOULD already understand

I’m sure you can add to this list too. My argument here is that when we become reflexively afraid and twitchy about making mistakes then we shut down a huge and vital source of learning and growth.

A willingness to risk mistakes, take some thoughtful chances, try something and suck at it the first 1-2-10-15-25-100 times is a STRENGTH, an asset, a real skill that makes us stronger, smarter and more agile than most of our fellow travelers on this life journey.

Let’s not forget one of the principal reasons we’re so freaked out about making mistakes

That reason is what other people might think of us. Gulp. Holy crap. This is easily the biggest reason (maybe the only real reason?) we’re so afraid of making a mess, screwing something up, not executing the activity like we’re professionals who have been doing this thing for years.

What makes this fear so dangerous to us as learners is that it develops a terrible habit of retreating from taking chances. When we equate making mistakes with being dangerous we will do what seems safe, and safety when we’re afraid making mistakes is too often to not try in the first place.

Mistake 5

(Caveat: there are of course things we should struggle mightily to not make mistakes at doing… If you don’t know how to drive skillfully yet stay off the freeway when it’s raining, OK? If you’re not a certified brain surgeon don’t do skull surgery, right? On the other hand you’ll NEVER get good enough for the freeway if you never ever drive for fear of not doing it perfectly. Same thing for brain surgery.)

Earlier I mentioned it was OK in our culture to make mistakes if we’re little kids. Little kids are not expected to get it right the first time – at least not for a while. And thank goodness, because little kids have so much to learn… how to crawl, how to walk, how to talk (imagine if little kids were afraid to try when we laughed, as we do, at the mistakes they make?), how to eat, how to follow the hundreds of rules of living in the world with other people, how to read…

We trade away enormous potential for growth, learning and healthy expansion of our strengths and skills when we run from the fear of looking stupid in the eyes of other people. Everybody, EVERYBODY screws up at the start. Everybody, EVERYBODY experiences a learning curve. What could we learn if we were less afraid of looking the fool?

Being willing to Look the Fool sets us Free

Anxiety starts because we treat a problem like a crisis. Breaking anxiety’s hold is learning to see that problems are just problems – and need to be treated as problems.

If we’re terrified of making a mistake we’re treating mistakes like a crisis. They are not. If I make a speaking mistake in front of my peers it’s JUST A MISTAKE. If I mis-remember something, or if I tried something and I made a mess of it on the first or second or third go, well, I was in a learning curve. It isn’t a disaster and the world will not end because of it.

Mistake 8

It might be said that to overcome the fear of making mistakes we need to be somewhat comfortable with looking the fool. Maybe a better way to say it is that we have to allow enough humility in our lives to be comfortable with looking less than suave and perfectly capable while we’re learning to BE suave and perfectly capable.

Did you know that you’re a model?

Don’t think we’re not modeling behavior for the people around us – and helping to support and reinforce the (mostly) unspoken rule to not make mistakes where others can see them – or at all. People are watching us. Our kids are watching us. Our co-workers and subordinates are watching us. Our friends are watching us.

But maybe the most important person that is watching us is US. One of the things I’m learning these days is how we are demonstrating to ourselves all the time if we can trust ourselves or not. Isn’t this an interesting notion?

If we tell ourselves that we want to lose weight, but then we continue to eat donuts every day (not that I’ve EVER been guilty of this) then guess what? We’re not being honest with ourselves, and we are in essence teaching ourselves that we can’t trust us.

Same thing if we’re constantly modeling for ourselves that risking looking the fool is dangerous. We reinforce that habit and that belief every time we back away, every time we wave off on chancing some good learning by risking a mistake.

It’s Time to be more like a Kid

Nobody who is fighting anxiety, about ANYTHING, wants to keep being stuck in anxious reacting and feeling. One of the ways, one of the principal ways we’ll get free of anxiety, is to learn to get comfortable with the risk of mistake-making again.

Mistake 7

Why? Because overcoming anxiety, as I’ve written here many times, is a small handful of skills. And we can only build skill if we’re willing to not be very skillful at the start.

I have told numerous coaching clients that one of the key pieces in my recovery from life-consuming anxiety was focusing REALLY HARD on the work to change my thinking. That meant I had to put other things on hold, or at least put them lower on the priority scale, than this work.

That meant that I had to go out to the store (food shopping, etc.) even though I had had panic attacks in stores and was scared to death to go back. Which meant I would look terrified, and would be forgetful or distracted when I was in the store, looking (I thought) like a crazy person.

It meant that I had to talk to myself, out loud, with my unpacking and challenging what if stories. Sure, it was uncomfortable as hell. But it was either that or succumb to old frightened thinking and run screaming out of the store. (OK, I wouldn’t have probably screamed – I would just knocked over old ladies, children and in-my-way store clerks on my way to supposed safety.) 🙂

Of course I didn’t get it right the first time. I got obsessed over my what ifs again and again, at home and out in public. Of course I started this work and then got caught up in my dizziness, or my numbness in my hands, or a sense that I was doomed and I should just give up. Sometimes I had to walk in and out of the store and call that much a victory.

And I couldn’t do it just once. I had to get utterly focused on doing it again and again and again on my way to getting some skill at challenging, disrupting and changing my thinking. And it wasn’t just at the store. It was just about everywhere. And it took time. And I had a tendency to really slam myself for looking the fool (because of course I was convinced I was looking the fool.)

But surprise – I learned to change my thinking. I learned to not give a damn about what other people thought of me. (And really – what terrible thing was I doing to them anyway? Embarrassing them? I wonder now if anybody actually noticed – or, if they did, if they didn’t just shake their heads in pity and sympathy and send me good vibrations before they want back to buying cabbage or whatever.)


Look Foolish – It will do you Good

Don’t think I’m kidding. We NEED to get comfortable with the risk of making mistakes (well, OK, the total certainty that we will make mistakes.) Hell, we’re making them anyway – if we’re being honest with ourselves.

Consider today where your fear of mistake-making, your refusal to risk looking the fool, is holding you back. Because there is nothing quite so freeing as learning to not give a damn in this direction.