Man looking disappointed or upset

“So…Who Died?”

This question completely changed my outlook on making mistakes.

When I was in tech school (many years ago) and someone in class messed up (sometimes me), we’d get flustered and worried, but Mr. Fields would calmly ask, “So…who died?”

His point was we didn’t do anything that can’t be fixed. We are going to make mistakes. Most all of them are fixable. It’ll be ok.

The result was we’d calm down and consider our options to solve the mishap. The experience also increased our confidence to act knowing that nothing would happen that we couldn’t fix.

Thanks for that life-altering lesson, Mr. Fields.

I’m not suggesting you have a free pass to not care about the quality of your work. There are tangible consequences to your mistakes. I do think our collective outlook on making mistakes is unhealthy and unproductive.

Why do we fear making mistakes in the first place? Yes, mistakes have consequences, but the fear of failure is debilitating.

When we fear making mistakes, we risk less, which leads to learning less and achieving less. It creates an unhealthy tension in every move we make.

Let’s explore why we fear making mistakes, the consequences of that fear, and how to overcome our fear of failure.


Why Do We Fear Mistakes?

You’ve heard of FOMO, the fear of missing out. But FOMM is a real thing, too — the fear of making mistakes. According to Psychology Today, at the heart of FOMM is our desire to be perfect, so we don’t risk falling short. Perhaps it’s rooted in our parents’ expectations of us, a teacher, or our societal circles. We were raised to fear mistakes.

We want to avoid:

  • The perception of being incompetent.
  • Being made fun of and the embarrassment that brings.
  • Disappointing others or ourselves.
  • Having our mistakes define us.
  • The unknown consequences of failure.

The stress of fear weighs us down. Perhaps our fears are unwarranted.

According to PsychCentral, “As Antony and co-author Richard Swinson, M.D., write in When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, we actually don’t fear making mistakes. We fear what we believe about making mistakes. That’s what’s upsetting or anxiety-producing for us.”

Are the consequences ever as horrible as we imagine them to be?


The Consequences of Fear

If you were to honestly assess what occurred after your mistakes, I’m willing to bet in most cases the feared consequences weren’t as big a deal as you made them out to be in your own mind.

The consequences of fear, therefore, are more about the consequences of not acting as a result of fear.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.” ― J.K. Rowling

In therapy, we often tie our root problems to our parents and how we were raised, so we may as well blame our fear of mistakes on them, too.

Parents tend to want to shield their kids from making mistakes and the consequences of those mistakes. They rob their kids of learning opportunities. They also rob them of learning that mistakes are a way to grow — to use failure for good rather than something to fear.

Alina Tugend, veteran journalist and author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, writes:

“While we do not want our children to face ongoing failure we attempt to overprotect them and rush in whenever we fear they might fail at a task robs them of the important lesson, namely that mistakes are experiences from which to learn,” write Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, two prominent child-development experts. “It also communicates another subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle message to a child: ‘We don’t think you are strong enough to deal with obstacles and mistakes.’”

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, suggests: “Every time a student makes a mistake… they grow a synapse.” So, by shielding them from mistakes, we prevent them from growing synapses — that sounds bad.

I joke, but our fear of failure, of making mistakes, is not funny. The fear is actually a self-fulfilling prophesy in that we become timid and less confident, increasing our odds of making a mistake.


Overcoming Fear

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually be afraid you will make one.” Elbert Hubbard

“Just get over it” is what some would say. Easier said than done, besides being an unhealthy way to get past this obstacle.

To overcome your fear, first acknowledge the fear is real.

Yes, you could make a mistake. You could make the wrong decision. There could be real consequences or loss. Acknowledging that actually helps you do your due diligence.

When considering the worst thing that can happen, also consider what the best thing is. There is an opportunity cost by not doing something. Which is greater, the perceived loss or the potential gain? It’s healthy to assess both.

Is it really failure if you learn from it?

Quotes like, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” by Henry Ford are inspiring but let’s keep it real, failure is failure. The mistake has consequences. The key is to minimize the risk of those consequences so it hurts less while we use that failure as a learning opportunity toward success.

Encourage rough-draft thinking. Work from assumptions that need validated.

Working from assumptions takes the pressure off from being perfect. Assumptions need to be tested and validated. Tackle the unknown risk in small bites so you don’t choke if it isn’t what you expected.

Repetition makes it easier.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” — Dale Carnegie

Taking the first step is hard. It’s scary. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. The more you do it, the more you’ll see that the real consequences are far less than the imagined ones.


Final Thoughts

You are human, you will make mistakes. Most of the mistakes you make can be fixed. Most of your perceived consequences will be worse than reality. How a mistake makes you feel is entirely up to you. Mindset is everything.

“I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison

The fear is real, so acknowledge it, but remember you control your emotions. Work from a mindset of assumptions that need to be validated. Test those assumptions in small bites and see the outcome as a learning opportunity toward better — this reduces the pressure. Rinse and repeat.

You’ve got this.

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