Why Talking About Your Mistakes Could Be Your Smartest Career Move

By Lauren McGoodwin

When I was 14, I marched into the house with my report card, tossed it in front of my mom, and waited for her to gasp and the column of perfect grades: A, A, A, A, A, A. But after a silent speed read, my mom glanced up and said: “Hey Lauren, this is great! But maybe next semester, let yourself get a C in something.”

I’ve always been a perfectionist. Like a Type A, anxiety-prone, neurotic mess when things don’t go my way, nut job perfectionist. Maybe you can relate to this feeling. Maybe the thought of screwing up at work can keep you from sleeping at night or a performance review with any semblance of constructive criticism makes your stomach churn. Or maybe the idea of an off-center Instagram post can ruin your week.

Mistakes, right? Nothing like making one to ruin a perfectly good day. So we do our best to never let them happen.

We know nobody’s perfect, and yet we’re a culture that’s chronically afraid to make mistakes. And more than anything, we fear what other people will think if they see us mess up now and again. We think anything is better than letting them see you fail.

featured image from Collage Vintage

Photo from Urban Outfitters

Why do we hate talking about mistakes?

At Career Contessa, we spend a good deal of our time interviewing women whose careers we admire. Often, we ask questions around mistakes, regrets, or failures they made in the early days when they were finding their way. Far too often, the question gets dodged (“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, we all do, but the key is learning from all of them.” or just “We all make mistakes.”). Understandably, the thought of reliving a shameful moment fills us with dread. But what is it really that keeps us from real talk?

Photo via Collage Vintage

A Tale of Two Career Women: The Be-Good vs. Get-Better Mentalities

“People approach any task with one of two mindsets: what I call the ‘Be-Good’ mindset, where your focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you’re doing, and the ‘Get-Better’ mindset, where your focus is on developing ability. You can think of it as the difference between wanting to prove that you are smart, and wanting to get smarter,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist and author who specializes in motivation and communication.

She goes on:

“The problem with the Be-Good mindset is that it tends to cause problems when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult. We start worrying about making mistakes, because mistakes mean that we lack ability, and this creates a lot of anxiety and frustration.

Anxiety and frustration, in turn, undermine performance by compromising our working memory, disrupting the many cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking.

Also, when we focus too much on doing things perfectly (i.e., being good), we don’t engage in the kind of exploratory thinking and behavior that creates new knowledge and innovation.”

Sound familiar? When we worry about mistakes, we do less good work. And as women, that effect amplifies. Studies show that we often believe that we lack ability when, in fact, we’re perfectly qualified. Too often we consider mistakes we make as signs of our own ineptitude.

So to spare ourselves the anxiety and frustration, we don’t talk about the mistakes we’ve made. We push forward, we try our best to learn from them, we shut down if anyone asks us about them. And that’s the catch-22. Because not talking about our mistakes? Pretty much the biggest mistake you can make.

Photo via Harper’s Bazaar

The elephant in the room: Why career women need to talk more about failure.

In a moment, I’m going to tell you to make more mistakes more often for the sake of your career. But let’s just start small: right now, today, start talking about the mistakes you’ve already made. And don’t just do it for you, do it for other women, too.

In a piece for Forbes, Selena Rezvani argues: “When leaders don’t talk about their mistakes, they indirectly reinforce the perception that women who make it to top ranks have perfect judgment, had ‘golden paths’ to leadership or were never rejected or told ‘No.'”

The keyword here is “women.” You know that glass ceiling? It’s no good if we break it, then pretend it was easy getting there. Doing so is a subliminal aggression to other women—it implies that if they make mistakes, they’re not good enough to succeed as you did. Says Resvani: “A young woman who is already skeptical that a leadership role is a plausible career goal now sees a grand canyon between herself and a woman leader. She might think, ‘She can do it – but I’m not like her.'”

If we want to make our careers collectively better, we need to start by being honest about the paths and setbacks that got us there. But most of all, we need to be honest with ourselves.

Photo via Tobruck Ave.

Fact: Making mistakes makes you smart. Talking about those mistakes grows your career.

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” That’s tenet #1 from Debbie Millman’s 10 Things I Wish I Knew Sooner Rather Than Later. But you’ve probably already heard some form of this argument before. We know that by taking risks, we inherently accept a certain number of failures, and that it’s scary, so scary, to put yourself out there when you have no safety net. But we also know that big risks may ultimately result in bigger pay outs. For our careers to grow, we need to take them often.

The “Get-Better” mindset requires that we knowingly take risks and that we accept setbacks as a means to an end. In effect, there are good mistakes and bad mistakes. And, in order to make our work more creative, innovative, and ultimately mind-blowing, we need to make good mistakes on the regular.

Photo via Garance Doré

So what’s a “good” mistake?

It’s the kind of mistake that you don’t ignore. In fact, it’s the kind of mistake you talk about often, publicly and openly. Those mistakes are the ones you want to make because ultimately, they make you more productive.

The philosopher, Daniel Dennett argues that “[t]he chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself. …you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are.”

Dennett’s argument goes something like this: in that big, sticky, anxiety-producing mess you created, there are details that will propel you toward brilliance. In talking about it openly, you set yourself up with a clear map of exactly which aspects went wrong and which (surprisingly) went right so that “your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.”

Screw ups. Faux Pas. Guffaws. Mistakes. Messes. Implosions. Shitshows. Failures. Disappointments. Your Darkest Hours.

Whatever you call them, one thing’s abundantly clear: it’s time to reframe how we view our mistakes. It’s time to make them more often. To skip the backup plans and safety nets that prevent you from actually risking it all. So take a cue from my mom and get that C. Because chances are letting go and royally blowing it will make you a better professional and, honestly, a more interesting human.

But don’t take my word for it — I’m probably wrong. Good thing that’s totally OK.

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