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How Perfectionists Can Become More Willing to Experiment

Six tips for overcoming hesitancy when outcomes are uncertain.

Key points

  • Perfectionists are often reluctant to try new things if they don't know whether they will succeed.
  • A change in mindset can help make uncertainty less scary.
  • Being willing to experiment and make small, manageable mistakes is a good first step.
Source: Trust "Tru" Katsande/Unplash

When we're willing to experiment, we open up the possibility of enriching our lives.

When we don't experiment, we hold ourselves back. If all we do is what we've always done, in the same ways we always do it, we limit our potential for success, pleasure, and personal growth.

One way perfectionists self-sabotage is by being hesitant to experiment. They often want absolute certainty before taking action, avoiding risks altogether. This mindset can lead to cycles of overthinking, self-criticism, and underachievement compared to their true potential.

Here are some practical tips to help you become more willing to experiment:

1. Explore hobbies that promote experimentation and provide opportunities to overcome small mistakes.

Engage in activities like gardening, writing music, or crafting (such as upcycling) that allow for low-stakes experimentation. For example, planting seeds that cost only $1 per packet carries minimal risk.

Look for hobbies that involve using items you already have at home, encouraging you to try your own ideas rather than relying solely on instructions or pre-set plans.

Your experimental pursuits don't have to be solitary endeavors. Engaging in science or craft projects with others, such as your children, can involve following tutorials, encountering unexpected challenges, and troubleshooting together.

2. Develop empowering phrases to counteract perfectionist tendencies.

When your perfectionist's brain screams, "Mistakes are dangerous," respond with self-talk that encourages experimentation. For instance, use a saying like, "My goal is to make more $10 mistakes and fewer $10,000 mistakes."

This reminder emphasizes that (A) testing ideas and methods in small ways with minimal risks is often possible, (B) each experiment yields transferable skills that enhance various aspects of your life, such as resourcefulness and problem-solving, and (C) cultivating a willingness to experiment helps prevent major life mistakes.

Find phrases that motivate you to experiment in ways that align with your broader life goals. For example, use "let's try it and see" as a mantra to approach others' ideas with openness, seeking opportunities rather than reflexively dismissing them.

3. Keep a log of how mistakes contribute to progress.

Document instances where mistakes were part of the learning journey.

  • Did all the seedlings you planted get infested with aphids and die, only for the next batch to thrive?

  • Did you initially search in the wrong place for information but find success when trying a different source?

  • Did a recipe lack something the first time you made it, but by the third attempt, you nailed it?

4. Where possible, quantify the benefits of acting and the costs of mistakes.

There are various ways to do this.

Example 1: Today, I attempted a task and achieved 85 percent success, with a 15 percent deviation from optimal execution. Quantifying this objectively allowed me to acknowledge the substantial benefit of the 85 percent accomplishment. I'm unlikely to repeat the mistake, but even if I did, my overall progress would still be positive.

Example 2: Returning to point number 1, quantifying mistakes from experiments can help highlight their small costs. Suppose it takes three attempts to learn how to do something yourself instead of hiring someone. While the initial attempts may involve material wastage and incurred costs, successfully completing the task independently can easily outweigh those losses in the long run. You may come out ahead the very first time you succeed, even if you have a couple of initial failures.

5. Experiment with friends.

Seek out groups of like-minded individuals engaged in the same experiments. Social norms influence our behavior, so being part of a community that embraces experimentation makes it easier.

You'll also gain perspective this way. For example, you might notice that other people aren't as put off by mistakes or "dead ends" as you are. If you see other people willing to try again in new ways after non-success, it will help you adopt this approach as a social norm.

6. Identify your inspirations.

Take a moment to reflect on the individuals you admire the most for their willingness to experiment. They could be scientists, explorers, or even people who had the courage to emigrate and establish communities far from their homes. These trailblazers embody the spirit of experimentation and can serve as powerful sources of inspiration for you.

Immerse yourself in their stories or explore related artwork. Consider creating an inspiration board with a theme dedicated to these experimenters. You could gather quotes, photos, and anecdotes that capture their adventurous spirit. Place a bookmark with a quote from an experimenter you admire inside your planner, or display a photo that symbolizes their journey.

Who are you grateful to for their willingness to experiment and work through failures, like scientists who work on new medications for diseases?

Who are the experimenters you admire within your own communities, like the LGBT community or your ethnic or racial community?

By adopting these strategies, you can make experimentation and the pursuit of your own ideas a central part of your life rather than just an occasional occurrence. Embracing a mindset of curiosity and courage will not only lead to greater success but also enriching and enjoyable experiences along the way.

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