Why Are We So Afraid Of Making Mistakes?

Think about a child who spills ink on the carpet while painting. How do his surroundings react to this mistake? According to my observations, “Didn't I tell you to behave well, now the whole carpet is ruined!” is one of the lightest reactions that can be given. When children drop food on the floor, break a glass, or answer a question wrongly the child is shouted at angrily, or get spankings by his parents to punish (to make them learn not to do such things again, I guess), and generally, the child is subject to a harangue. Many things are done, but no "mistake" goes unpunished. In every mistake they make, even if they slip up, someone always corrects something, sometimes they punish by getting angry or annoyed, and sometimes by depriving them of what they have. Certainly, learning how to do things correctly as a child will prepare him for the future in terms of adapting to life. But, our reactions and the way we respond to mistakes have more impact on our personalities and decision-making strategies than we think they have.

When we look at children, we see they fear nothing. They don’t know how hot the fire is until they touch it nor how hard the ground is until they stumble and fall on it. We don't come into the world knowing how to do anything 100% right. Through the reactions of our parents and close environment, we create our world of right and wrong. Those expanding eyes that we see after some of our actions, the frowns that judge us from above, and the cries that rise decide that we should be afraid of making mistakes.

What thoughts are running through the child’s mind at that moment? Which experiences does she learn to combine with which emotions? What words does she accept as rules?

“I did something bad, and my mother got very angry about it. I am scared. I messed everything up! She doesn't want me to do painting again. If something like this happens again, my mother will be even more angry. I should be very careful. I am ashamed.”

School brings similar experiences to children. We have an education system (in Turkey) concentrating on not making mistakes. We learn from our test results and class rankings that we stand out with what we cannot accomplish rather than what we can. This is because the person who made the fewest mistake is praised and celebrated as they rewarded with the first place. And this is called success. We punish the ones who makes mistakes by focusing on the outcome rather than the learning process. Yet, learning occurs when we err. The foundation of our education system which we have built by prioritizing the high school and university entrance exams is based on "not making mistakes".

What Could Be The Effects Of This?

The moment the child realizes that he has made a mistake (or when he is made to notice) he feels terrible, ashamed, and even helpless. When making mistakes and these feelings are matched/learned, avoiding making mistakes will become his biggest goal. The belief that only those who do not make mistakes will be successful is going to be interiorized and this will lead to a hesitation from showing initiative, using own capacity, imagining, and living their own truth. When we pay attention, we will see that this is a situation that has become the culture of a society/generation and shows its effects in many areas.

However, very successful people did not become ‘successful’ without making any mistake. They tried a lot, made a lot of mistakes, but they saw their mistakes as opportunities for improvement. Successful producer and businessman Walt Disney was fired from his job much early in his profession because the editor said he "lacks imagination and had no good ideas", and didn't find him talented. Also, the first animation company went bankrupt and their ideas were found useless. Stephen King's bestselling novel was rejected 30 times before it was published.

If we saw our mistakes as opportunities, we would not be afraid to try new things, and we could preserve our entrepreneurial self that were in us as a child. We wouldn't try to follow the rules at the cost of destroying our creativity. When the child does not hesitate to err and accepts the capacity for making mistakes, he will begin to explore the world, investigate and act freely with a sense of curiosity.

Kathryn Schulz writes in her book, On Being Error:

“It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

References:

Being Wrong - By Kathryn Schulz. The New York Times.

https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/books/excerpt-being-wrong.html

Rethinking Our Approach to Mistakes. Shelly J. Schmidt,

 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1541-4329.12172

Avicenna Schools Guidance and Counseling Department