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The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong

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I heard a lot of good lines when I attended this month's conference held by Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski on "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," but my favorite was when Sen. Claire McCaskill said she finally learned "not to give an (expletive) about the dust bunnies under the bed." I also loved when Arianna talked about how she had to get rid of the "obnoxious roommate living in my head who was judging me."

Being so hard on ourselves reflects the great fear many of us having of falling short, of not being perfect, of making mistakes. And one of the key obstacles all of us are going to have to overcome to make our work and lives healthier and happier -- the goals of the Third Metric -- is to accept that not only do we all make mistakes, but we must do so in order to create and take risks.

My book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, examines why this is so necessary - and so difficult. I wrote it, as I say in the book "to explore the tension between the fact we're taught when young that we learn from mistakes, but the reality is that most of us hate and dread them."

The following is an excerpt from my book on what I learned while writing it.

I sought to find out how we can return to and internalize the lesson from kindergarten -- that mistakes help us because we learn from them. A few years -- and a great deal of research -- later, I've changed some of my assumptions, but that original thesis remains the same. There are no simple fixes, but there are ways all of us can shift our thinking about mistakes. Starting with our children, we can emphasize effort and deemphasize results. We can appreciate that we -- and they -- can't be perfect, nor is it a goal we should aim for. We should strive to do our best, but if the prize is ever-elusive perfection, then the fear of failure will too often overshadow the willingness to experiment, take risks and challenge ourselves. We should be careful of the contradictory message that it's all right to make mistakes but not where it counts, and of unintentionally making assumptions about gender that reinforce stereotypes -- that girls can't handle criticism or that boys don't want to talk about their mishaps. We can create a community of like-minded friends who support us in our efforts not to succumb to the idea that all that matters is good grades and awards. Yes, our children need to succeed, but we have to know -- and repeat it to ourselves over and over and over -- that they also need to fail.

The type of children we raise will be the employees and employers of tomorrow, and they will carry what they learn about mistakes when young right into the workplace. Will they be adults who point fingers or will they be more interested in solving the problem than placing blame? There is usually not one incompetent person at the root of most mistakes. While this may make it more difficult to affix culpability, it does make it easier to eventually uncover the factors that underlie the error and resolve it in the long-term. Research in the area of human error has taught us the importance of figuring out and uncovering the multitude of latent errors that led up to the blatant one.

It has also taught us how necessary it is to avoid hindsight bias -- that is, as much as possible, walking through the steps and missteps leading up to a mistake, not judging it in retrospect while standing at the finish line. And especially in light of our recent economic turmoil, it is clear how important it is not to assume there are those -- through perceived talent or brains or experience -- who are somehow above mistakes. That some people -- or we ourselves -- are immune from being questioned or challenged.

One overarching theme is the value of clear communication. But like so many clichés, this term has lost real meaning -- if we just conversed more, things would be better. In fact, research has shown us that there are tools we can use to help us share information more successfully. Just casually telling people to be more aware of what they are doing and to talk more wouldn't change anything. Medical and aviation experts who have developed checklists to prevent possibly fatal mistakes had to study how other such systems were developed, conduct pilot studies and constantly revise. Something as seemingly minor as knowing each other's names, studies found, fosters closer teamwork. We don't have to reinvent the wheel and figure it all out ourselves; there is a lot of helpful information out there to create better communication within our families, in the workplace, and with our friends, if we are only willing to access it.

We also know that in developing systems to avoid errors, observation and feedback is crucial. We all make too many assumptions about how we and others act based on what we want to be true, not necessarily on what is true. For instance, many pilots and doctors believe that fatigue and stress don't cause them to make mistakes. That's simply not correct. In all walks of life, we need to identify underlying attitudes that can be harmful and then work hard to change them. We also need to learn from other cultures that our ways of looking at mistakes and errors aren't the only ways.

It is not easy. Yet despite what many of us think, we can choose, to some extent, to become that kind of person. Yes, some are born with a more easygoing or accepting temperament, where slipups seem to roll off their back, while others with more intense or uptight personalities may agonize about every little blooper. But just because we're hardwired one way doesn't mean we can't, through a willingness to listen and understand, shift our perceptions. Even though the process may seem painstakingly slow, we can change our attitudes little by little. I am more willing to look at what really happened when things go wrong and try to learn rather than go on autopilot, expending useless energy flagellating myself or pointing fingers at others.

The truth also is, sometimes a faux pas is just a faux pas and there is no great lesson or wonderful epiphany at the end. It might just be a blunder that messes up your workday or causes your spouse to get mad at you or ruins that great cashmere sweater you got on sale (hypothetically speaking, of course). We all make our share of those, and that's okay also. But if we can all forgive ours and others' errors more often, if we can acknowledge that perfection is a myth and human beings screw up on a regular basis -- and we can either simply feel bad about it and find someone to accuse or learn from it -- then we are on the right track.

Reprinted from BETTER BY MISTAKE by Alina Tugend with permission from Riverhead, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright 2011 by Alina Tugend.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.