Success and the Art of Mistakes

Last week, I watched this video about a mother and daughter who hand crochet beautiful jewelry.

Handmade Portraits: Ayşegül & Sebahat from Etsy on Vimeo.

I think the point of the video was supposed to be about the relationship between mother and daughter (it appears to have been posted near Mother’s Day) but that wasn’t what caught my attention. What interested me was something the mother days:

By using my mistakes, I developed these techniques.

Isn’t that beautiful? Embracing the act of making mistakes. The same week, I read an article called The Success Myth, written by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. The article discusses how we tend to attribute innate ability to those who succeed – believing that someone is successful because of a talent or special gift they were born with. In fact, Dr. Grant Halvorson tells us, success is really more about people who can accept that they will make mistakes, but who also believe that they can improve. Here’s an excerpt:

When you study achievement for a living, as I do, one of the first things you learn is that measures of “ability” (like IQ) do a shockingly poor job of predicting future success. Intelligence, creativity, willpower, and social skill aptitudes like these are not only profoundly malleable (e.g., they grow with experience and effort), but they are just one small piece of the achievement puzzle.

So, what does predict success? Research tells us it’s using the right strategies that leads to accomplishment and achievement. Sounds simple, but strategies like being committed, recognizing temptations, planning ahead, monitoring your progress, persisting when the going gets tough, making an effort, and perhaps most important — believing you can improve — can make all the difference between success and failure.

I kind of fall in the middle. I do believe that some amount of innate skill is needed to be very successful at something – whether that talent is brains, brawn or the ability to sing. We need a touch of talent to get us started. But I also believe that there isn’t much out there that can’t be learned, if one is determined enough. While it is true that someone who is practically tone deaf like myself will never be an opera singer, I do believe that with lots of hard work and lessons I could be… well, not completely terrible. I believe that the two cliches of mental power – brain surgery and rocket science – could be learned by most anyone, if they really wanted to learn it. The problem is, of course time, effort, and money – and the willingness to make mistakes.

I think we lose our ability to make mistakes as we get older. When we were kids, it was pretty accepted that we’d screw up. No one expected that we would ride a bike perfectly the first time, or that we would draw like Michelangelo the first time we got a box of crayons. We expect children to try things – and we expect that they will fail.

When we get older, however, that expectation goes away. As we become adults, we are far more likely to try something once, and if we aren’t good at it, just give up. It takes a great sense of humor and determined spirit to keep on trying.

Personally, I have a sliding scale for my tolerance with mistakes. I am more tolerant of them when they are in private – in public I am mortified (even if I have no reason to be.) I am more tolerant when I expect something to be hard, but can be tough on myself if I perceive that the task is easy. I have a limit of times I will try something – the number changes, but when I hit it, I tend to give up and walk away. (Although honestly, that is usually because I have found that I am much less likely to succeed when I am frustrated. If I give myself a chance to cool down, I am much more likely to succeed.)

Today, I read this by author Neil Gaiman:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

I feel like the universe is telling me something. I love those magical moments where things seem to be converging – a phrase, a photo, a song – something repeats itself in various ways and causes me to take notice. Synchronicity. It feels like the universe is telling me that it is okay to take a giant step – to go ahead, make a few mistakes. Learn and grow your talent from them.

Maybe it is time to add a few more risks in my life.

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