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The embarrassment of mistakes

We’re hardwired to care what people think about us. Even though countless self-help books, life coaches, and messages from society will encourage you to simply not give a “f*ck” (in the words of Mark Manson’s book), it’s simply not realistic. The fact is, we care. We care what others think because our brain processes rejection as a threat to our survival. So how then, can we create environments which counteract our natural fear of being rejected and encourage the risk of making mistakes?

Mistakes are as essential to human life as oxygen is to our survival. In order to grow, we must first fail. Why is it then that mistakes, instead of being encouraged, are often punished and reprimanded? Fact: mistakes are inevitable. In society, regardless if it’s in a working environment, a sporting team, or in relationships, people are held up to the impossible standard of being perfect. But we aren’t. And we never will be. It’s in our very nature to be fallible.

Despite this reality, mistakes are continuously punished. Instead of embracing the possibility of making a mistake, people fear them. And amongst fear, creativity dies. What compounds this fear is often the embarrassment associated with making a mistake. Whenever we attempt something new and uncomfortable, we have an unrealistic expectation that we’ll be good at it the first time we try it. And when we’re not, we get embarrassed. These mistakes don’t align with the competent human we believe ourselves to be. So instead of pursuing this uncomfortableness, we choose the comfort of retaining this image of competency by avoiding whatever it is that we’re not good at. And it appears to work. Up until these avoided deficiencies hinder our growth and excellence.

So how do we create an environment that fosters the breeding ground for the occurrence of mistakes? First, identify whether the mistake is one of simple human error or a by-product of pursuing something new and challenging. If the former, ask yourself what is the cost of this error? Is this the first time it has happened, or is this a repeated mistake? Remember that mistakes are never personal - people don’t intentionally screw up. Operate under the premise that people don’t know what they don’t know. What might be blatantly obvious to you, might not be present within the other person’s awareness. Often these mistakes need not be punished, but instead, notified. A notification, as defined by Daniel Coyle, “...provides context, telling of something noticed, placing a spotlight on one discrete element of the world. Notifications are the humblest and most primitive form of communication.”

If the mistake is one of the latter, a by-product of pursuing something new and challenging, reinforce. Don’t punish. Embrace the mistakes. Encourage the mistakes. Remember, no growth occurs in the comfort zone, and there’s no comfort in the growth zone. Be patient. When an individual makes a mistake, their brain immediately assesses the situation for rejection. Given that mistakes have invariably been punished throughout our lives, we’re operating under the unconscious conditioning that the mistake we’ve made is bad and consequences will ensue. This conditioning takes time to unlearn. And safety in the environment is imperative to ensure this unlearning occurs.

Creativity and fear cannot coexist. When an individual is punished for a mistake, a mistake they did not intentionally make, a mistake that was probably inevitable, they become afraid. They become afraid of their environment. They become afraid to take chances. They become afraid to be themselves. Instead of thriving, they are now focused on surviving. Being punished is unconsciously interpreted by our brain as a threat to our survival. When safety is not established, individuals will continue to falter at an increasing rate. Extroverted personalities will become introverted. Caring for others and our environment, our natural and instinctive state of being, will be converted into focusing only on ourselves. So when this happens, don’t blame the individual. Check yourself. How might you have contributed to this individual making a mistake? Are the relevant protocols in place to prevent such mistakes? Has the individual been sufficiently trained? What behaviour has been modelled by others in this environment? Has an environment been established in which the individual feels safe? Or is the individual simply susceptible to the fallibility of being human and the inevitability of making a mistake?

Perfection isn’t possible. So let’s stop trying to establish it and start embracing the imperfect nature of being human. Foster growth by creating safe environments and encouraging mistakes and you’ll make this world, and the people you interact with, better for it.

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