Tolerating Mistakes

Are you perfect yet? If not, you’ll be interested to learn the value of making – and tolerating – mistakes.

You see, one of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking that we shouldn’t be making mistakes. Of course we should, because we all do. You can’t avoid making them. We’re human, and mistakes are part of the landscape of our work and our lives.

As you may remember, I’ve written previously about learning from your mistakes. This time around, I want to cover a different angle: how tolerating mistakes ultimately improves your learning and your performance.

It works like this:

When you’re not tolerating mistakes, you’re trying to hit the target of “acceptable performance.” This not only forces you to aim at a relatively small bulls-eye that’s naturally hard to hit, but it also increases the pressure you feel to perform at a high standard, which tends to be more of a burden than a help.

All this is exacerbated during the times you’re trying to develop any new capability.

When you change your attitude and start temporarily tolerating mistakes, however, the whole performance picture changes – for the better.

  1. The bulls-eye of “acceptable performance” opens up greatly, allowing you to feel good about getting closer than before to your desired results, even though you’re still not hitting the real and final target.
  2. As you develop your skills, talents, and abilities, you can totally eliminate the “worst” errors by tolerating mistakes of a certain kind. For example, if you’re trying to improve your sales performance by pitching 10 prospects per week, you might think it’s smart to make your quota by pitching lots of extra people who aren’t qualified to buy and wouldn’t be interested if they were. But when you temporarily tolerate the “mistake” of making too few pitches each week, you can feel better about taking the necessary time and trouble to make sure you’re pitching only highly qualified prospects. Later on, you can develop ways to find enough of them to hit your 10-pitch target.
  3. You can focus more tightly on only certain aspects of the performance you’re trying to develop. For example, if you’re trying to improve your public speaking abilities, you can temporarily tolerate the “mistake” of speaking for less than your planned time. This allows you to concentrate on learning to give a high-quality presentation that lasts only, perhaps, 15 minutes instead of the 30 minutes or more you’d like to fill up. After you master giving a great 15-minute presentation, you can more easily expand on your improved skills to speak just as well for longer and longer periods of time.

These are just a few examples that obviously don’t cover the full range of mistakes you might want to tolerate temporarily. Your situation is likely to include unique factors, of course, and you will probably want to tolerate mistakes I haven’t mentioned here.

What’s central is this: You can think of “tolerating mistakes” as a kind of skills-development strategy. Just as you tolerate falling off a bicycle when you’re learning to ride, or whiffing on a golf ball when you’re first learning the game, you can tolerate loads of mistakes as you work on the tasks, projects, and goals that are most important to you.

Tolerating mistakes changes your attitude about errors, morphs despair into hope as you fall short of your target level of performance, and allows you to focus fruitfully on just one part of a complex set of rules and behaviors you’re trying to master.

The net result of cheerfully tolerating mistakes is you’ll develop your new capabilities faster and make fewer mistakes than if you hold yourself to overly-difficult standards and beat yourself up for the unforgiveable crime of being human.

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