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Want to Get Ahead? Make More Mistakes

Alina Tugend |Author, "Better by Mistake"
Tuesday, 24 Apr 2012 | 12:23 PM ET

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG by Alina Tugend author of "Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong."

Better by Mistake by Alina Tugend
Source: Amazon
Better by Mistake by Alina Tugend

“Failure is not an option” is a great marketing slogan but a terrible motto to live by. Unfortunately far too many of us believe it.

Perfectionism is one of the plagues of our society.

It prevents us from moving outside our comfort zone and taking risks. It makes us feel as if we’re always falling short and therefore we never feel satisfied. And that’s a recipe for an unhappy life.

Most importantly, if we make perfectionism our goal in life, we feel ashamed when we make mistakes – and yet, being willing to make mistakes and learn from them is the only way we can progress and move forward.

Wait a minute.

Aren’t we taught – and isn’t it right – to strive to be the best we can be?

Yes, but that is not the same as perfectionism. It’s fine to set high standards and to aim for excellence. It’s not fine to feel like every blunder and every goof-up is a failure to be avoided.

Experiments showed that those who are always scared to make mistakes -- ultra-perfectionists, they are called -- perform worse in writing tasks than those who aren't as worried about being flawless. Experts theorize "superperfectionists" are afraid to practice writing, because to practice means to make mistakes. More importantly, they fear receiving any kind of negative feedback, so they don't learn where they went wrong and how to get better.

Educators often see this fear of mistakes and quest for perfectionism in their classroom – and they don’t like it. Students who won’t challenge themselves to try new tasks because they might appear “dumb.” Who won’t sit for more than a few minutes to try to and figure out a complex problem because they hate the feelings of discomfort that come with not being “perfect.”

Research shows we don't just learn more when we're open to mistakes, we learn deeper. Take this example of employees at a large Midwestern health care organization. They were learning a new website system. There was no formal training, so they had to figure it out by trial and error. Employees who were told it was okay to make mistakes in practicing the new web site - and weren’t punished for errors – learned the fastest and became the most proficient compared with their colleagues who were punished for mistakes.

This shows that if we're only concerned about getting the right answer, we don't always learn the underlying concepts that help us truly understand.

In addition, if we’re terrified of mistakes, when they happen - as they inevitably do - many of us spend far too much time beating ourselves up, or finding someone else to blame instead of trying to figure out what we can learn from them. It’s a great waste of energy that could be used in far more productive ways.

How can we change the mindset that reveres this myth – and indeed it is a myth – of perfectionism? By focusing on resilience. The ability to fail or make a mistake and recover. It is the single most important difference between those who succeed at their goals and those who don’t. Increasingly, that’s what teachers are hoping to find in students and employers are looking for when they hire workers – not those who have always succeeded, but those who have stumbled and picked themselves up again.

Failing, resilience, making mistakes, trying again – that’s what makes us who we are. Not perfection. To quote the Leonard Cohen lyrics, “there’s a crack, crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Alina Tugend has been a journalist for more than 25 years and is the author of "Better By Mistake." A graduate of U.C. Berkeley, she was one of four journalists nationwide awarded a grant to study at Yale Law School. She has written about education, environmentalism, and consumer culture for numerous publications including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, the American Journalism Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Child and Parents. Since 2005 she has written the bi-weekly consumer column “Shortcuts” for The New York Times business section. To learn more, visit her website www.alinatugend.com or follow her on Twitter @atugend.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks

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