Why it’s OK to make mistakes

When you approach a new task are you focused on getting it right, or getting better?

Many of us approach new challenges with a fear of making mistakes. Rather than taking on a new task with confidence and energy we’re held back by our “be good” mindset and the need to prove how clever we are.

In fact studies show that when we feel we’re allowed to make mistakes we are actually significantly less likely to make them. This is where the “get better” mindset comes into its own. Focusing on learning and developing our skills and accepting that we may make mistakes along the way means we are more likely to stay motivated, even in the face of challenges and setbacks.

The “be good” mindset can be a source of frustration and anxiety – we worry about making mistakes because mistakes suggest we lack ability. This in turn undermines our performance by compromising our working memory and disrupting the cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking. Focusing too much on doing things perfectly prevents us from engaging in the exploratory thinking and behaviour that create new knowledge and innovation.

If this sounds all too familiar, Dr Heidi Grant Halvorsan of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center suggests three steps to help change your mindset:

  1. Begin a new project by 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.
  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.
  3. Try not to compare your own performance to other people. 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?

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.