Don't Let this Mistake Stall Your Growth

Costly Mistakes Stall Learning

A client recently came to me with the complaint that she wasn't getting anywhere in her business. She didn't have the time to dedicate to it, and if she took the time, she'd have to give up her paying job, which wasn't feasible in her situation.

She didn't have room to make any mistakes that wouldn't totally destroy her. Even if her business model was solid (which it was), and she had the skills to pull it off (which she did), she couldn't let herself take the necessary experiments because there was no room to fail without having to start from scratch.

Mistakes are an essential part of learning and growth, but if they are too costly, you will avoid them. With good reason.

When I first learned to do a backflip, my coach set up the arena so any mistakes would be totally cost-free: I was jumping into a foam pit, so the main feedback I'd get was frustration. This is fine, because otherwise, I would never have experimented with the different angles, power, and twisting to get the backflip right.

Once I learned to get my feet under me, I could practice on regular floor without worrying about mistakes, because I could always save a bad flip and learn something without getting hurt.

My client was having trouble with her own learning not because she was averse to making mistakes, but she had her project set up in a way that made mistakes very costly, forcing her to avoid them entirely or to start from scratch whenever she made one.

The Solution: find a way to mitigate the costs of making mistakes.

There are generally two things that make mistakes costly:

  1. Emotional weight
  2. Actual damage

Let Go of Perfectionism (at least in private)

Many people, myself included, have a need to appear competent all the time, even when nobody is around. I used to get so angry at my video games I would throw the controller at the screen when I lost (I spent a lot of time grounded from video games).

If you are a self-described perfectionist, you know the feeling. You can be working on a piece of art or a song and mess up, and even though nobody is around, you beat yourself up.

We do this to increase the emotional cost of making mistakes, hoping to condition ourselves into not making mistakes. Of course, our brains are too smart for that. They DO stop making only doing things that we're already good at, playing it safe.

To get over this hurdle, I would just ask myself if anything really bad had happened. Sure I lost the game, but I could try again. Sure I messed up the song, but I was only practicing so nobody was annoyed.

It also helps to remind yourself that your worth as a person is not tied to your skill in a task, especially when you have the chance to keep working on perfecting it.

Minimize Actual Costs

The second source of costly mistakes comes from actual damage: a mistake costs money, or it injures you, or it damages property, or it takes a lot of time to fix.

The way to deal with this cost is to rearrange how you do your work in order to minimize the per-mistake cost.

A great example comes from Eric Ries' The Lean Startup. A key concept of his book is small batch size and fast turnaround. The idea is that you never commit too many resources to any given batch or products or services. That way, if there is a mistakes, you can correct it for the next batch without losing too much time or capital.

A less business-y example comes from cooking. Instead of committing to make a new dish for a big party, try it at home first with just one or two (or zero) guests. That way, you don't have to worry about wasting tons of food or ruining a big event.

By reducing the cost of a mistake, you allow yourself to make a mistake, experiment, and explore. Which is exactly what needs to happen in order for you to learn.

Take Away:

And how did my client do? In the end, I helped her see that starting a business didn't have to be an all-or-nothing affair. She didn't have to invest any money she didn't want to, so any business failure wouldn't put her in a hole. That way, she had the space to explore, experiment, and learn.

Are there any areas of growth or learning for you where you avoid making mistakes because they are too costly? Suggest some ways to reduce the costs. It could help another reader do the same.