Most of us prefer to avoid messing up. But as it turns out, a certain amount of failure supports success. Here’s why — and how to make the most of your misfires.
When surgeon Atul Gawande hit a professional plateau, he hired a retired surgeon to observe and critique his performance. Gawande’s colleagues at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital were almost uniformly shocked. Why? His choice acknowledged that mistakes do happen in the operating room, and even the best doctors have room for improvement — a fact most surgeons are loath to admit.
The list of slip-ups and unconscious gaffes Gawande received from his mentor was humbling: He held his elbows too high, he failed to notice that the patient briefly experienced blood-pressure problems, his surgical drape was conveniently arranged for him but hampered his assistant’s access to the wound.
Gawande accepted this feedback appreciatively, not because he is a glutton for punishment, but because he believes that acknowledging his mistakes is essential to becoming the best surgeon he can possibly be.
“Since I have taken on a coach . . . I know that I’m learning again,” he writes in a recent article in The New Yorker. “I can’t say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I’ve discovered that I do.”
Medicine, like most professions, is fairly mistake-phobic. When errors occur, the tendency is not only to avoid culpability (in case admission invites legal action), but also to act as if nothing ever went wrong. “At most, a doctor might say, ‘I’m sorry that things didn’t go as well as we’d hoped,’” Gawande writes in his best-selling book Complications (Picador, 2003), even though studies confirm that when a doctor expresses regret to a grieving family after a fatal mistake, the apology will often dissuade the family from filing suit.
It’s not just people in high-stakes professions who avoid confessing their errors. For many, simply being late for a coffee date can unleash a firestorm of self-justification: “Traffic was awful!” “I couldn’t get my brother-in-law off the phone!” “I lost my keys!” Rarely do we hear (or say), “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t give myself enough time.”
So what makes admitting blunders so difficult? Research suggests it’s not just ego-protecting defensiveness or the fear of consequences: The human brain may be wired for self-justification. Social psychologists Carol Tavris, PhD, and Elliot Aronson, PhD, coauthors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Mariner Books, 2008), believe mistakes provoke cognitive dissonance, which they describe as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent.”
In other words, two ideas like “I’m a good driver” and “I just cut that person off” don’t agree, so instead of acknowledging that we did something foolish or impulsive that a “good driver” wouldn’t, we blame the other driver for being a jerk. This justifies our bad driving and resolves the dissonance.
We pay a price for this relief. Needing to be right can alienate us from others and stoke unhealthy perfectionism. Additionally, we miss the benefits that come with being comfortable enough to make, admit and learn from our errors.
The good news is that a neurological tendency doesn’t have to be a destiny. We can learn how to fail better. Here are five good reasons to learn the art of embracing our mistakes.
Errors Can Pave a Path to Career Success
A leader who knows how to use mistakes for growth can be a real asset to professional organizations. That’s why some companies actually seek out CEOs who’ve failed in past jobs, says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness(Morgan James Publishing, 2009).
“When businesses are doing well, they rarely pick apart what’s happening to see why they’re doing well,” she explains. “They simply say, ‘We’re great’ and then move on,” she says. “But when they take a risk and fail, then they can look back and say, ‘OK, what went wrong? A, B and C are things we need to change, things we can learn from.’”
Lombardo, who works with clients on leadership development, emphasizes the importance of being vulnerable to your team. “You don’t have to cry or fall apart every time something goes wrong, but do let them know, ‘I screwed up here, I’m human, and this is what we’re going to do about it,’” she says. If people can make mistakes without fearing they’ll be fired or humiliated, she adds, there’s a much greater chance they’ll be willing to innovate and seek creative solutions.
Randy Cohen, former author of The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine, agrees that openly admitting mistakes can be a powerful way to build trust. “About once a year I’d write a column where I’d revisit a question that readers persuaded me I’d gotten wrong,” he says. “The first time I did it, I was quite anxious because I thought I’d lose all credibility, but it had the opposite effect. The response was warm-hearted and generous. People understood that any time you make a lot of public utterances, some of them are going to be wrong. I was praised for acknowledging them; it increased my professional credibility [as an ethicist] because people thought, ‘OK, this guy will admit when he’s messed up.’”
Blundering Can Breed Stronger Skills
Social psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success(Ballantine, 2007), believes that a willingness to make mistakes is essential for achieving excellence in any field. She calls this willingness a “growth mindset,” and notes that individuals who possess it enjoy some distinct advantages. People with this outlook, she explains, “believe their talents and abilities can be developed over time through effort, dedication, instruction and mentoring. [So they] actively seek challenges, learn from their mistakes and persevere.”
Dweck’s interest in the growth mindset was first piqued while studying how children coped with difficult math problems. “Some of them were so excited, even though they weren’t able to do the problems yet. They said things like ‘I love a challenge’ and my jaw dropped,” she says. “Kids who love to get things wrong?” That’s where she first identified the growth mindset in action.
What’s more, Dweck found that students who were comfortable with some miscalculations consistently outperformed students who had what she calls a “fixed mindset.” Students in this latter group assumed that “their abilities and talents were just fixed traits — you have a certain amount and that’s that.” People with a fixed mindset believe that they either have talent or they don’t, so when presented with a difficult challenge, they tend to give up far more easily.
If you’re given to this type of thinking, know it’s an attitude you can change. “If that fixed-mindset voice in your head tells you not to take a risk,” Dweck advises, “start answering back with a growth-mindset voice: The only way to learn is to risk mistakes; mistakes are a sign that I’m actually learning.” (For more on Dweck and the growth mindset, read “Mindset.”)
Failure is Essential to Creativity
Few creative acts are free of risk, and if you are creative enough often enough, you’re bound to fall on your face. Not just every once in a while, but on a regular basis. “Making mistakes is central to the education of budding scientists and artists of all kinds,” Tavris and Aronson write in Mistakes Were Made. “They must have the freedom to experiment, try this idea, flop, try another idea, take a risk, and be willing to get the wrong answer.”
Tim Harford agrees. “The only way to avoid mistakes is to play it really safe, and that’s no recipe for creativity,” says the author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). Harford studied important innovations to see if they were serendipitous or gambles that paid off against the odds. “For every long shot that pays off, there are many that don’t. Creativity requires risk, and risk often leads to failure.” What counts is not the flop, but what you do after the flop.
In Adapt, Harford uses the choreographer Twyla Tharp to illustrate his point. Movin’ Out, a collaboration between Tharp and singer-songwriter Billy Joel, premiered on a Chicago stage in 2002. The show was panned by critics as “pile-driving and ill-conceived.” Because Tharp was at the project’s helm, all pressure was on her. She could have easily dismissed the critics’ comments. Instead, she listened to them, as well as to a trusted group of colleagues, and completely overhauled the show. When it reached Broadway, Movin’ Out earned rave reviews and went on to win two Tony Awards.
How did she do it? By challenging her own status quo. “Fixing mistakes requires shaking things up rather than accepting the path of least resistance,” Harford says. “And fixing your own mistakes requires a personal U-turn. Most people find that, at the very least, embarrassing.”
In reality, making this kind of U-turn requires enough insight, courage and strength that it should be anything but humiliating. And for Tharp, admitting the show’s shortcomings was exactly what turned embarrassment into triumph.
Acknowledging Faults Shows Integrity
“We all do regrettable things,” Tavris says. “We will hurt the feelings of someone we love. We will be afraid to admit we made a wrong choice and send good money after bad, unable to change direction. Before we can correct any of these normal errors of living, we have to break out of the cocoon of self-righteousness and self-justification.”
Being able to admit when one is wrong is a sign of strength precisely because it’s so difficult. Most of us don’t want to reveal our misjudgments any more than we want to take off our clothes in public. This is where integrity comes in; we decide being truthful and responsible is more important than looking good. And because we all know how hard that is, witnessing others admitting wrongdoing often has the effect of making us trust them more.
Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education during George H. W. Bush’s administration, was a strong supporter of educational testing, charter schools and No Child Left Behind. Over time, however, her beliefs about what best served children’s educational needs changed radically, and she publicly renounced her former position on a number of issues. “For Ravitch to acknowledge that she had been wrong showed real intellectual integrity and personal courage,” says Cohen, whose own decision to acknowledge errors in his newspaper column broadcast a similar message.
As acknowledging error shows humility and integrity, it also helps strengthen these qualities. Admitting mistakes releases us from the fruitless effort of defending ideas we know aren’t working, says Cohen. This builds the kind of awareness and self-trust that integrity is built upon.
Admitting Mistakes Deepens Relationships
Fran Walfish, PsyD, psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), often admits her imperfections to her clients. “The greatest gift a therapist can give any client is the message that we are all flawed,” she says. “The sooner we can embrace our own limitations and shortcomings, the better and faster we’ll be able to embrace the flaws in our children, our spouses, our intimate relationships.”
To be a good role model for children, Walfish advises, “Be honest [when you make a mistake], but not super hard on yourself. Don’t throw yourself on the floor or hit yourself over the head, because then your child is going to do the same. Be kind to yourself and to your child. Acknowledge that errors happen, and are expected.”
Owning up to missteps and transgressions can also free up energy in relationships that feel stuck. “When you have tension between two people because one or both of them are refusing to admit a mistake, it can really toxify your relationship,” says Lombardo. This is true whether the mistake is something as small as forgetting to pay a bill or as big as an infidelity. “Denying a mistake or keeping it a secret takes real energy,” she says.
Of course, when you do admit a mistake, it’s important to do so with grace and appropriate responsibility. Cohen warns against the use of the passive voice (“mistakes were made”) because it dodges personal accountability. Another classic cop-out is “I’m sorry if I offended anybody.” This puts the burden on the reaction of the wronged person instead of the wrongdoer.
He recommends keeping things simple. “You can never go wrong offering up what to me is the most beautiful sentence in the English language — and all the more beautiful for being so rare: ‘You were right and I was wrong.’”