How to Increase Your Mistake Tolerance

Don’t avoid mistakes; learn from them.

Posted Oct 10, 2019 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano

 Sarah Kilian/Unsplash
Source: Sarah Kilian/Unsplash

The worst mistake is not making mistakes.

 Sarah Kilian/Unsplash
Source: Sarah Kilian/Unsplash

 Life is trial and error. We cannot learn without failing first.

As Joyce Brothers said, “You need to give yourself permission to be human.”

Learning through trial and error is not just about trying new things. We must first recognize our faults.

The God Complex

Most organizations suffer from mistake intolerance.

Failure bears a lasting stigma in the business world. Leaders who do not fail are not taking enough risks. They prefer to look perfect than fall from grace for trying new things.

The God Complex is a belief that inflates our ability, privilege, and infallibility. It limits our capacity to solve problems. We think we know all the answers.

As Tim Harford explains in his TED talk, companies look for “little gods” to solve complex problems. Instead, he makes a case for establishing systematic processes of trial and error.

The God Complex creates a tense relationship with failure. We don’t want to admit errors, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. And get stuck doing nothing.

In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Harford encourages us to abandon this illusion. And instead, use humility as a problem-solving technique.

“We have no idea why a certain thing will work. No idea at all. But the moment you step back from the God Complex, and you say, ‘Let’s just try a bunch of stuff,’ ‘Let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not,’ you can solve your problem.”

Choose Your Mistake Mindset

The desire to play safe develops mistake-intolerance.

Our society emphasizes instant gratification over patience, perseverance, and hard work. We educate children to know the right answer, not to discover it.

There’s no learning without pain. By avoiding mistakes, teachers train students to adopt a safe path.

There are two types of people: those who dismiss mistakes and those who learn from them.

Research shows that thinking our intelligence is malleable helps us see mistakes as a signal. We are more open to pay attention and learn from them.  

But those who think they can’t get smarter fail to see mistakes as growth opportunities. 

Our mistake mindset is shaped at school. It becomes more rigid as we grow up. 

Social pressure decreases our mistake tolerance.

Childhood social anxiety is correlated with making mistakes. Those with low self-esteem suffer the most. Instead of looking at the error as an opportunity to learn, they see it as a reason to quit. 

Don't Make the Mistake of Avoiding Mistakes

American classrooms are designed to avoid errors at all costs. Even though research shows that such an approach is harmful in the long run. Making mistakes helps us to grow. Avoiding them keeps us stuck. 

When we make errors with high-confidence, we correct them more readily.

Corrective feedback is crucial. It helps us understand why we made a mistake and the reasoning leading to it.

As Virginia Postrel said, “Progress through trial and error depends not only on making trials but on recognizing errors.”

Teachers get valuable insights from mistakes too. Error tolerance increases participation, exploration, and curiosity. It’s more valuable to encourage students to make mistakes than to avoid them at all costs.

James Stigler found out exactly that when trying to understand why Japanese students were beating Americans at math.

By the fifth grade, the lowest-scoring Japanese classroom was outperforming the highest-scoring American one.

Although they were many reasons, the most salient one was the teaching method.

In American culture, mistakes are associated with being weak or stupid. But Japan doesn’t share that same phobia

Instead of teachers explaining how things work, Japanese students are encouraged to first solve problems on their own. Only after (several failed) attempts, the teacher intervenes. The whole classroom engages in discussing the failed attempts. 

As Stigler recalls, “Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake. Whereas in Japan, mistakes, error, and confusion are all just a natural part of the learning process.”

Japanese teachers are mistake-tolerant. That's why their students beat Americans at math.

They understand that the struggle to find a solution is vital to the learning process.

Becoming mistake-tolerant is not easy, though.

5 Steps to Increase Your Mistake Tolerance

1. Embrace a trial-and-error approach.

In the workplace, people are often afraid to admit they did something wrong.

Leaders don’t want to be perceived as weak. Thus, they have this overwhelming belief that they are infallible. And stop exploring.

Unilever applied a trial-and-error approach to design the perfect nozzle for a detergent factory. The company created 10 random variations. All tested them all. The best ones inspired new variations. And were tested again.

After 45 generations of variation and selection, Unilever finally found the perfect nozzle. 

2. Own your mistakes.

Too many children and adults suffer from perfectionism. When a mistake happens, they get paralyzed. Many try to hide it. Most feel devastated.

Owning your mistakes will make you more tolerant. It’s a reminder that no one is perfect. It will make you kinder toward yourself and others.

If you are a parent, own your errors in front of your children. If you are a manager, celebrate your mistakes with your team. This will help you neutralize the God Complex. As well as create a safe space to experiment.  

3. Turn your mistakes into lessons.

How you approach your errors defines whether you will learn or regret that situation.

Remember the two mindsets. You can dismiss them or learn from your mistakes.

When was the last time you made a mistake? What were you trying to do? What went wrong? Why? What will you do differently next time?

4. Label the mistake, not yourself.

The most harmful part of making mistakes is not to err, but to feel that we are wrong. Mistakes can harm our self-worth.

There’s a difference between committing an error and believing that we are a mistake. We must label the error as the problem to be solved, not attack ourselves.

5. Screw up.

Increasing our mistake-tolerance is not easy. Especially for those who have turned perfectionism into a lifestyle.

Put yourself out there and risk screwing up. It will make you feel less confident at the beginning. But you’ll perform better in the long run. 

Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues or friends for help. It takes courage and effort to embrace life as a trial and error. The only way to make real progress is to risk screwing up.

A version of this post was originally published on Gustavo's Liberationist blog