What it Feels Like to Make a Mistake

I don’t like making mistakes.  In fact most of my professional life has been spent in the service of not making a mistake, or being seen not to.

I am not alone; in fact a lot of the practical difficulty in culture change projects is created by people being (understandably) unwilling to move away from a no mistakes / ‘safety first’ style of thinking.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with safety first, it is not always the most helpful approach to problem solving.  Sometimes we need to think creatively, try something new…and risk making a mistake.

Yet so much of the language in organisations is about not making a mistake.  Small mistakes are often cited in appraisals as evidence that someone did not have an outstanding year.  And in comparison to creative thinking,  ‘risk management’ sounds sensible, grown up and professional.  It is easy to pick holes in new ideas.

So a ‘safety first’ culture often prevails where creativity is seen as a luxury and mistakes are punished. This is fine for some kind of problems, but not those which require more than past experience to solve them (what Ron Heifetz calls ‘adaptive change‘).

Therefore, when attempting to help organisations deal with adaptive change, we need to pay attention to how mistakes are treated.  Clearly in this respect senior managers set the tone.

Yet so ingrained is our fear of making a mistake, the main barrier is how we ourselves feel when we make a mistake.  If making a mistake is the admission price for creativity:

What does it feel like to make a mistake?

I have made a number of mistakes recently, so I thought this would be an interesting experiment.  After all, if we are to encourage people to take risks and  accept their feelings about making a mistake, what exactly are those feelings?

In this case the mistake I made was sending an e-mail which contained factual errors.  Here’s what happened next:

  1. The first experience was a nasty, crackling sensation deep inside my stomach, which had a kind of shockwave effect, culminating most noticeably in a sort of pins and needles feeling in my hands, lasting about 5 seconds.
  2. The next moment brought a slight shortness of breath combined with a leaping heart and a racing mind to create a momentary sense of panic.
  3. The next feeling was a realisation that the mistake is real and this came (for me) with feelings of slight nausea lasting about a minute.
  4. Interestingly, my mind then immediately raced into self preservation (i.e. excuses) mode. Can I shift the blame?  Can I make an excuse? I was almost overwhelmed by these thoughts over the next 30 minutes – being aware of them did not seem to matter.
  5. The most noticeable feature was then my mind’s ongoing attempts to try and fix the problem.  Again these thoughts were almost overwhelming and impossible to stop.  (Incidentally this is where I often compound the initial mistake, so overpowering is the desire to fix it immediately).  This is also the period where my mind suggests a number of different lies which might get me off the hook.
  6. Finally I noticed how the mistake had a peculiar ability to haunt me.  For example, I can think about it and right now – sitting here at my comfortable desk – I can experience a kind of ‘after shock’ all over again, with a heart leap thrown in. It is as if my mind is saying ‘you need to remember this because we are not going to do that again!’

If we are to encourage new ways of thinking it seems to me that we need to help people recognise and accept what it feels like to actually make a mistake.  Though this won’t be easy, the alternative is a life lived in the service of not getting things wrong.

6 thoughts on “What it Feels Like to Make a Mistake

  1. Spot-on Rob, thanks for writing this. It all strikes home.

    I guess that living a life in the service of not getting things wrong is that tragic amplification of old wiring showing up again—it kept us safe from sabre-toothed tigers and grumpy maths teachers. But indeed it keeps us firmly locked in Dullsville, with outings to the Chamber of Horrors when we get things wrong…

    I have long been a professional mistake avoiderer…say something dorky on social media? Pfft! Delete, and onward to the agonies of Step 6… In a few hasty moves I biggify the original mistake and abandon the things that actually matter: connecting with colleagues and mentors all over the world, being creative, contributing, being true to myself etc.

    The idea of accepting the feeling of making mistakes is novel…curiously, something about it makes me want to laugh wickedly and try it straight away…

    …and well here I am, getting all of this hopelessly wrong, very possibly. But this topic has hit a nerve, it’s an important topic, I love this blog…

    Maybe helping people connect with what really matters to them and how this feels in their bones can also anchor them while they move through the fear and aftermath of mistakes? I am thinking of Kelly Wilson’s Sweetspot exercise, maybe with the uncomfy mistake-related feelings and thoughts present in the background..

    I will try that. Next time. Right now I will hit Post Comment as quick as lightning, eat chocolate and then sit on my hands 🙂

    Thanks again for another thought-provoking post!

  2. Hi again, Rob.

    Not in the spirit of critique of your great post, but more as a way on elaborating on it :

    When I can say to myself,
    1) « yes, I goofed up, once more » and accept this – including the sensations that go with that observation,
    2) « and I don’t yet know what would have been a better response » and also welcome the sensations that go with that…
    Something tends to ease in me, rather deeply.
    And i speculated a bit about why this might be :
    Ad 1) when i can admit to myself that I goofed up, it also becomes easier to admit to others that I did so. And when I can admit that to others, it is much more likely that I get a helpful response – or can ask for it !
    Ad 2) when I admit to the « not-yet-knowing », the racing thoughts tend to calm down, maybe because they serve as avoiding the not knwoing ? And in a way it is normal that I don’t know, until i have connected with my values in that context – which I typically won’t do when i’m anxiously anticipating… On the other hand, when I reconenct with my values, it is more likely that a better alternative emerges – but only when I have allowed the disorganisation that also manifests as « not-yet-knowing »…

  3. I have so much to say in reply to you both but no time to say it. Other than this – I read both avidly and with real gratitude that not only did you read the post but you felt moved to comment. I hope when people read the blog post they read your comments too because they are brilliant!

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