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To Err Is Human: Why Making Mistakes Is Good for You

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The start of every New Year for me usually seems to mean yet another attempt to be more decisive in life. Unfortunately, what prompts my indecision is the fear of making a mistake, which is a much harder trait to lose—especially because it’s something all too many of us have in common.

We hesitate over choices because the idea of being wrong is too scary to shake off. Starting when we’re young, the ramifications of potential failure (via report cards, for instance) are ingrained in us, and society only enforces these notions even more as we get older.

It doesn’t help that the human brain is more likely to remember cringe-worthy times than anything else. Otherwise, why else do I recall next to nothing about the classic literary theorists of my college days but can recount every minute detail of the time I answered a question incorrectly in one of my literature classes? Believe it or not, however, this selective memory is quite beneficial; despite what some teachers or bosses might tell you, making mistakes can actually be a key to success.

Every Mistake’s a Memorable One
Joan Collins once famously said, “Show me a person who has never made a mistake, and I’ll show you someone who has never achieved much.” Even if we shudder at the thought of messing up, it’s true that we often learn well from it—if only to prevent erring similarly in the future. The brain’s ability to store information about events related to mistakes more accurately than it does other events is just one of our many survivalist adaptations.

When someone is in a high-stress situation (and feeling humiliated by giving the wrong answer in class or in a business meeting certainly qualifies as such), the brain makes a point of remembering every detail to protect that person in the future. In fact, memories created this way are much more resilient and long-lasting than those with less highly charged emotional ties. For instance, if you meet someone once, it’s unlikely that you’ll remember that person for the rest of your life; you need to encounter him or her a few times after that to refresh your memory. Active memories like these need some amount of upkeep for sustenance.

But make a big enough mistake—especially if it’s a public one—and you’ll have no trouble recalling it for years afterward, even more so if it happens between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. That’s when the brain’s dopamine release is especially responsive during positive and negative events, making every good moment seem great and every bad one seem catastrophic. On the one hand, it teaches us to be careful with our actions; on the other hand, it’s what makes puberty so darn unforgettable.

A New Look at Learning
The correlation between memory strength and making mistakes works to our advantage when it comes to our learning something new. Take my unfortunate error in lit class that one day—not only do I remember my wrong answer, but, more importantly, I still remember the right one, too (neither of which is all that interesting, unless you’re into the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century).

A UCLA-based study published in a 2009 edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology reached similar results, finding that students who were allowed to guess incorrectly at questions before getting the answers remembered them better than students who simply studied the answer and were asked about it later.

The same holds true within office settings, as well. A study performed at the University of Michigan in 2004 and published in the journal Organizational Science showed that employees who received some sort of incentive for attempting something new, regardless of whether they succeeded, actually had more success and noteworthy ideas overall.

Confidence, leadership skills, and being cutting-edge are all sought-after qualities in employees—that is, unless these qualities lead to failure. But what this study suggests is that feeling free to pitch a bad idea or taking even a faulty shot at something can lead to the kind of achievement and innovation we’re looking for. Once the consequences of mistakes are taken away, they no longer have any power and therefore stop holding us back.

Putting Errors in Perspective
Every mistake is a chance to learn something new, though that’s an easy statement to make when you’re trying to comfort someone and a much harder one to accept when you’re the one in the wrong. But that doesn’t make it any less true. There’s a reason why we remember so remarkably well the brain slips and poor judgment calls we make from time to time. We can learn from them, but doing so takes a change in attitude.

First, mistakes should be put into perspective. Did your error lead to the end of someone’s life or the end of the world? In almost all cases, probably not, so it’s likely not as bad as you imagine. Allow yourself to feel embarrassed or frustrated, but don’t dwell on negativity. Instead, come up with a new plan of attack. Recognize that whatever you do post-mistake is a chance to rectify and improve the situation.

And above all, keep in mind that you’re not the first person to err—rather, errors are precisely what make us human, and forgiving ourselves for them leads not only to a happier existence, but possibly to a more successful one to boot. Getting bogged down by the possibility of failure ensures a safe but boring life in which there is no chance for disappointment, but no chance for greatness either. That’s one mistake we should all try to avoid.

By: Vicki Santillano

Add a Comment1 Comments

This is so inspiring. I relate so much to this piece. You mentioned indecisiveness due to fear of being wrong and, in turn, embarrassed. I am trying to break my habit of indecisiveness and I think it starts with knowing the root of the problem, which as you helped me to realize, is fear. I enjoyed reading about this topic!

January 18, 2010 - 8:55am
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