Are You Making Enough Mistakes?

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A perfect test score, perfect credit, a face without blemishes, maybe even a problem-free life: these are ideals for many. Setting aside the question of whether these goals are achievable, on deeper reflection are they even desirable? Your parents, your teachers, and your bosses all want you to avoid mistakes. Here’s why they have it all wrong.

Chasing Perfection

Our culture exerts intense pressure on our most vulnerable members — our children — to avoid mistakes at all costs. In the United States, “high stakes” standardized testing influences not only the promotion of individual students, but also how funding is allocated to schools as a whole. In my home state of Georgia, there have been allegations of cheating not by students but by teachers and administrators whose jobs depend on their students’ performance. Under such intense pressure, I worry that children will internalize the message that learning and growing — which necessarily involves trial and error — aren’t nearly as important as filling in the right bubbles on a standardized test by whatever means necessary.

When Toddlers are Smarter than Teenagers

In the teenage quest for identity, being right becomes paramount: having the right clothes, listening to the right music, seeing the right movies, and hanging out with the right people become all-consuming goals. Contrast this to your average toddler, who hasn’t learned what “cool” means. Smaller kids don’t see what they do as “right” or “wrong.” They just try things and watch what happens. “Surprises” and “discoveries” are equally valid labels for what “older and wiser” people call “mistakes.” You may have heard that the glue used on 3M Post-It Notes was discovered by mistake, but did you know that Viagra, chocolate chip cookies and several artificial sweeteners were all accidental discoveries?

But What About Consequences?

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Mistakes have consequences. I’m not advocating creative trial-and-error while driving on a busy highway. Yet how often do we overestimate the costs of mistakes? And what about the cost of not trying something new on the chance it won’t turn out the way we expect? Most successful people got to be that way through a series of failures. Today Apple Inc. is famous for the iPhone, but not as many people remember their huge flops: the Newton and the Lisa. The secret is that it’s very, very hard if not outright impossible to tell successes from failures before they’re tried in the real world. If Apple wasn’t the sort of company to take a chance with Newton, they would never have fielded the iPhone.

Even Computers Need Mistakes

In another lifetime, I worked in an Artificial Intelligence lab. A major goal then (as it still is today) is to get computers to learn how to do tasks on their own rather than put human beings through the tribulations of programming them by hand. One of the biggest, most robust findings of machine learning research, is that it is impossible to teach a machine anything by only showing it the correct answers. It was necessary to show the computer wrong answers — mistakes — in order to help the machine discriminate between right and wrong answers. If even computers need mistakes to learn, what excuse do we have for avoiding mistakes?

Own It, Fix It and Move On

As a Counselor-intern, I had to examine how I dealt with mistakes. Internship marks the boundary between studying to be a counselor and learning to do therapy. Three words from the Hippocratic oath were pounded into our heads: “Do No Harm.” Junior counselors have the habit of obsessing on whether some little thing they said or didn’t say “caused harm” to a client. Fortunately I worked at an internship site with another motto: “When you make a mistake, own it, fix it, and move on.” Surrounding myself with people who were accepting and supportive even when I made mistakes not only emboldened me to push my limitations with clients, but reminded me that a mistake I learn from is a blessing and not a curse.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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