The Perfectionist's Handbook

Take risks, invite criticism, and make the most of your mistakes.

Making the Most of Your Mistakes

Using Deliberate Practice and Strategic Experimentation to Improve Outcomes

Do the mistakes you make feel catastrophic? Many perfectionists feel that no matter how much time they put in on a project, if they (or worse, others) see one mistake, the entire thing is useless. You believe that if someone else recognized the mistake, you should have too. In your opinion, mistakes are avoidable. In addition, don't you often criticize others and think less of them for making a mistake?

However, research on perfectionism shows that striving to attain high standards pays off as long as you don't become overwhelmed by your concern about making mistakes. So, what are the do's and don'ts when it comes to making mistakes?

Do use the principles of deliberate practice. Research on how people become experts shows that the only way to improve your skill level at something is to focus on what you don't do well; in other words, your mistakes. In fact, even when expert performers stopped looking at mistakes and just went on automatic pilot, their performance ceased to improve. Only by going back and looking at what wasn't working - and deliberately and purposefully working on those errors - does a person's skill level progress.

Don't get caught up in harsh self-criticism. There is a difference between feeling disappointed in yourself or your performance and hating or disliking yourself because of it. While guilt and disappointment can be motivating, shame is just demoralizing. In fact, it appears from the research on perfectionism, self-criticism is related to higher levels of depression, low self-confidence and a predictor of daily stress, low social support, and a low incidence of positive feelings. Also, those who reported engaging in harsher self-criticism also reported higher levels of avoidance and procrastination when it came to getting things done. Do you get angry with yourself and engage in blame and self-persecution, or do you try to cultivate a self-correcting, problem-solving attitude when you experience a setback?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Do consider using strategic experimentation. I consider scientists expert problem solvers; individuals who add to our knowledge about ourselves and the world. Let's think for a moment about the scientific method. The scientific method is essentially a strategy designed to test various options to see which has the best outcome. Scientists start with the premise that they don't know what the outcome of something will be; instead, they come up with hypotheses. They then set up an experiment to test these various theories to see which one is "true." The outcome of scientific experimentation is typically something like: "We tested three hypotheses, and hypothesis x seems to be the best explanation."

In other words, scientists have a great attitude about mistake making. They aren't, in fact, making mistakes; they are trying to determine what the best strategy is in a particular situation by actually trying them all out. This allows them to find that the best strategy is the one that works the best when compared with other options. When we worry about making mistakes, we often forget that just repeating the same strategy over and over again might cause us to miss out on better options.

Don't let the possibility of making a mistake inhibit your creativity. Consider the case of Joslyn, the chief executive officer (CEO) of a small business start-up. She is chronically worried that she or someone on her staff will make a mistake that will cost the company money or potentially put them at risk for a lawsuit. As a result, she makes very conservative decisions. She tends to play it safe and agonizes over all of the choices she has to make. She holds long staff meetings to review the same issues in minute detail and inadvertently demoralizes her staff. They no longer want to bring innovation or ideas into the office for fear of having to go through the gauntlet of Joslyn's ruminations. They also resent that she constantly worries about money but spends excessive amounts on legal counsel, always trying to reassure herself that the next decision she makes won't result in a business-ending lawsuit.

Consider the possibility that mistakes can actually hold the key to your success.

 

 

 

Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the International OCD Foundation and author of The Perfectionist's Handbook.

more...

Subscribe to The Perfectionist's Handbook

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?