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You need to make mistakes to get ahead

By Alina Tugend, Special to CNN
As much as we try to avoid mistakes, they can be a positive, humbling experience that allow us to empathize with others.
As much as we try to avoid mistakes, they can be a positive, humbling experience that allow us to empathize with others.
  • Our culture warns against mistakes, but they can actually have positive results
  • If we avoid mistakes, we aren't open to getting the information we need in order to improve
  • Mistakes are humbling and allow us to feel empathy for others

    Editor's note: Alina Tugend, author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, has been a journalist for nearly 30 years. She lives outside New York City with her husband and their two sons.

    (CNN) -- We live in a culture that sends out very mixed messages about mistakes: We're told we learn by making them, but we work mightily to avoid them; that no one's perfect, but goofing-up is bad. So the result is most of us know that we -- as parents, spouses, employers and employees -- are going to make mistakes, but deep down, we feel we shouldn't.

    But since, as the old saw goes, "to err is human," how do we work toward accepting mistakes and learn from them, rather than avoiding and denying them? Well, the good news is that there are upsides to making mistakes:

    One of the definitions of "to err" is "to wander or stray." Often we make mistakes because we try new things -- we stray from accepted paths. Teflon, penicillin -- these are examples of great discoveries made by mistake. Take a page from Albert Einstein, who said, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

    We don't move out of our comfort zone if we're afraid of mistakes. Experiments with schoolchildren who did well on a given test show that those who were praised for being smart and then offered a more challenging or less challenging task afterward usually chose the easier one. On the other hand, children praised for trying hard -- rather than being smart -- far more often selected the more difficult task.

    When we fear looking dumb, when we emphasize results over process and effort because we're afraid of messing up, then we're going to miss a lot of what's fun and stimulating in life.

    Why being wrong is good for you

    If we try hard to avoid mistakes, we aren't open to getting the information we need in order to do better. Experiments showed that those who are so scared to make mistakes -- ultra-perfectionists, for example -- perform worse in writing tasks than those who aren't as worried about being flawless. Experts theorize "superperfectionists" are afraid to practice writing, because to practice means to make mistakes. More importantly, they fear receiving any kind of negative feedback, so they don't learn where they went wrong and how to get better.

    We don't just learn more when we're open to mistakes, we learn deeper. Research tells us that if we're only concerned about getting the right answer, we don't always learn the underlying concepts that help us truly understand whatever we're trying to figure out. Mistakes need to be seen not as a failure to learn, but as a guide to what still needs to be learned. As Thomas Edison said, "I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

    Mistakes can help us change deeply embedded norms. It was discovered in aviation, for example, that accidents sometimes occurred because junior pilots were afraid to correct more senior pilots when they mishandled problems; the same is true in fields such as medicine. By examining why those accidents happened, experts figured out ways to develop more flexible hierarchies, which creates better work environments overall.

    Mistakes keep us humble. And that's important. When we think we're above making mistakes -- or that others are -- we stop questioning and challenging. That can lead to complacency, and really bad decisions. To quote Bill Gates: "Success makes a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." Overconfidence leads us to be blind to the limits of our expertise. Remember our most recent financial crisis?

    When we make mistakes -- and gain insight from them -- we have more empathy for others. Research has shown that men in particular tend to become more understanding of others' screw-ups when they're asked to remember a time they messed up in a similar manner.

    We learn to bounce back. This upside to mistakes should not be underestimated. Knowing how to fail, err, come back, work harder, fall down, and get up again is crucial to succeeding -- in all areas. It's called resilience and everyone, from child-development experts to employers, know that it's probably the single most important difference between those who accomplish their goals and those who don't.

    Accepting mistakes is not the same as loving them. Few people are happy when they mess up, whether it's a small or large blunder. And accepting imperfection is certainly not about being lazy or careless -- quite the opposite. But we need to believe in our gut -- not just acknowledge in our mind -- that it's all right to stumble and screw up and try again. In fact, it's not just OK, it's necessary.

    We're all going to make mistakes, it's just a question of choosing how we approach them. Are we going to finger-point or pretend they didn't happen? Or are we going to take responsibility, try to learn from them and forgive ourselves and others? We have the choice. The only option we don't have is perfection.