Think back to the last time your boss assigned you a new project or task at work, or the last time you tried to tackle something really difficult in your personal life. How did it feel? I’m guessing scary, right?
While some people seem eager to tackle new challenges, many of us are really just trying to survive without committing any major screw-ups. Taking on something totally new and unfamiliar is understandably frightening, since the odds of making a mistake are good when you are inexperienced. Small wonder that we greet new challenges with so little enthusiasm.
How can we learn to see things differently? How can we shift our thinking, and approach new responsibilities and challenges with more confidence and energy?
The answer is simple, though perhaps a little surprising: Give yourself permission to screw up. Start any new project by saying, “I’m not going to be good at this right away, I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.”
So now you’re probably thinking, “If I take your advice and actually let myself screw up, there will be consequences. I’m going to pay for it.” Fair enough. But you really needn’t worry about that, because studies show that when people are allowed to make mistakes, they are significantly less likely to actually make them! Let me explain.
We approach most of what we do with one of two types of goals: what I call “be-good” goals, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you’re doing, and “get-better” goals, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning a new skill. It’s the difference between wanting to show that you are smart vs. wanting to get smarter.
The problem with “be-good” goals is that they tend to backfire when things get hard. We quickly start to doubt our ability (“Oh no, maybe I’m not good at this!”), and this creates a lot of anxiety. Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with your performance quite like anxiety does; it is the goal-killer.
“Get-better” goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.
Just to give you an example, in one study I conducted a few years ago with my graduate student, Laura Gelety, we found that people who were trying to be good (i.e., those who were trying to show how smart they were) performed very poorly on a test of problem-solving when we made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently while they were working, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).
The amazing thing was, the people who were trying to get better (i.e., those who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of our dirty tricks. No matter how hard we made it for them, students focused on getting better stayed motivated and did well.
Too often, when the boss gives us an assignment, we expect to be able to do the work flawlessly, no matter how challenging it might be. The focus is all about being good, and the prospect becomes terrifying. Even when we are assigning ourselves a new task, we take the same approach, expecting way too much too soon.
Alina Tugend, in her excellent new book “Better by Mistake,” illustrates through fascinating examples how the expectation of perfection — in business, in the practice of medicine, even in aviation — has been a direct contributor to catastrophic failures. Expecting perfection in your own life, she explains, is a recipe for self-sabotage.
The irony, you see, is that all this pressure to be good results in many more mistakes, and far inferior performance, than would a focus on getting better. Mistakes, as Tugend points out, should be thought of as something to manage and learn from, rather than something to eliminate (because the latter is more or less impossible). “We should strive to do our best,” she writes, “but if the prize is ever elusive perfection, then the fear of failure will too often overshadow the willingness to experiment, take risks, and challenge ourselves.”
How can you reframe your goals in terms of getting better? Here are the three steps:
- Start by embracing the fact that when something is difficult and unfamiliar, you will need some time to really get a handle on it. You may make some mistakes, and that’s OK.
- Remember to ask for help when you run into trouble. Needing help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable — in fact, only the very foolish believe they can do everything on their own.
- Try not to compare yourself to other people — instead, compare your performance today to your performance yesterday. Focusing on getting better means always thinking in terms of progress, not perfection.