The Mistake of Perfectionism

Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. ……… When perfectionists do not reach their goals, they often fall into depression. Perfectionists strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their standards. Wikipedia

A perfectionist does not allow for flaws or mistakes. That is why true perfectionists tend not to achieve the things they want to. Perfectionists look at mistake negatively as opposed being part of the learning process. In fact, mistakes will, if looked at from a positive point a view, enhance and strengthen our outcomes, our goals

Unless we learn to fail, we fail to learn

“No one likes making mistakes because no one likes to fail. Failure can be embarrassing, dent your pride and leave you with ‘egg on your face’. Sometimes size doesn’t matter either, because even the smallest mistake can feel gargantuan.”

Sometimes we get it right and a lot of times we don’t get things right. However, no one plans to fail or make a mistake. These things just happen, usually as a result trying, taking a risk or doing something new. Mistakes happen all the time.

Mistakes are inevitable, and if you aren’t making mistakes every week, then you aren’t learning much or trying anything new. The way we talk about failure and not getting things right has to change so that we can feel safe. Failure is a learning experience and we all have to flop in order to be a hit.

Failures force us to accept our fallibility and they teach us about ourselves, but making mistakes helps us inspire each other. Failing doesn’t make us incompetent and it isn’t bad. We have the idea that failure is the opposite of success when it is part of it.

Life is one massive work in progress full of mistake making either “we learn by our mistakes” which is sometimes we do or we don’t. Life is not a TV show or film, life has no script. Why don’t we learn? Often because we do not feel comfortable, we feel judged. What will people think of me if I make a mistake.

Feeling Safe

Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard University and she says that to learn and be productive, we need to feel ‘psychologically safe’. If we work in a place where mistakes are frowned upon and there is no room for making them then we don’t learn, we fail.

In her book Teaming: How Organisations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy she says,

In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalise them or think less of them for it. They also believe that others will not resent or humiliate them when they ask for help or information. This belief comes about when people both trust and respect each other, and it produces a sense of confidence that the group won’t embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.

 We do the same thing in our own thinking about ourselves. When we think of mistakes, flaws in a positive, helpful way we develop that “safe environment” to learn from our mistakes.



Image: Amy Edmondson, Teaming How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Complete (2012)

Celebrating Mistakes

Celebrating mistakes and showcasing our failures isn’t something we are good at but every year in Finland they celebrate a ‘Day for Failure’, an initiative created at the Aalto University in Finland. Their philosophy is a breath of fresh air because it recognises personal and professional failures but without the guilt and shame.

“Failure is not the enemy, but the fear of failure is. Day for Failure is a new ‘holiday’ for anyone to rethink, share and learn from failure.”




Amy Edmondson: Teaming How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Complete (2012)

Rob Kelly: The Thrive Programme

Jo Boaler:

John Dabell:

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