The “Art” of Making Mistakes
I was always drawn to drawing and painting but was never good at it. Or at least that is what I told myself for years.
As a kid, my sister and I took painting lessons with a local artist in his barn on Saturday mornings. Recreating pictures from magazines on canvas. The goal was to reproduce the picture exactly, as we learned fundamentals of light and perspective. I was self-conscious of my mistakes and eventually stopped going rather than have all my painting faults pointed out. My experience convinced me I didn’t have the talent for “art.”
I can feel this negativity pathway activate every time I have to do something creative. My breathing gets shallower, my teeth clench, my jaw gets tight. Faced with anything that requires some creative skill, my self-talk shuts me down right away. Even if I must perform, I harbor so much doubt that I’m sure it is not my best effort.
Turns out Making Mistakes is a key enabler for the process of Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change and learn new things.
To clarify—it’s not the mistake itself, it’s how you deal with it.
Carol Dweck, Ph.D., author of Mindset, tells us that how we think about intelligence—whether it is fluid or static—makes the difference in how we learn, grow, and succeed. If we see mistakes as immutable, we operate with a fixed mindset. A mistake is interpreted as: I’m bad and I can’t get better. It is what it is. A growth mindset on the other hand, views that mistake as an opportunity to learn and change. It opens possibility.
A fixed mindset is naturally reinforced by the way our own brain operates. The brain is constantly alert to ensure our safety, on the lookout for all those negative things that can happen to us. It’s looking for ways to protect, not expand and grow.
I believe that makes it doubly important in our own self-talk and in how we talk to others that we use as many positive reinforcements as we can. “You haven’t mastered that, yet” offers more opportunity to develop my art cred than “That’s not right.”
Making a mistake and being criticized for it has a different impact than making a mistake and being encouraged to do better. Mistakes foster learning in a growth mindset state—a chance for those neurons to fire new connections. In a fixed mindset, mistakes shut down expansion—no new neuron pathways are stimulated; self-limiting ones are reinforced.
Operating with a fixed mindset can hold leaders back from being their most effective. Some ways I’ve seen this show up:
- Convincing themselves they already know it all (they got to the top, didn’t they?) so their way is the right way.
- A mindset that ‘Learning is for losers’ (we’re not hiring you to learn, we’re hiring you to know!)
- Using mistakes as an irrevocable personal indictment.
When a leader is not open to learning (and the only way we learn is through the uncomfortable cycle of experimenting and making mistakes), she is closing off her own potential and denies those on her team of being inspired and supported to do their very best.
It can happen in organizations as well. Organizational culture can inhibit creativity and innovation through its own fixed mindset. It can show up as ‘zero tolerance’ of making mistakes. Or bureaucratic processes squash the life from out-of-the-box initiatives. An overreliance on “that’s how we’ve always done it here,” can stop a person—and an organization—from experimenting and expanding. There have been enough stories in the news about the negative impact when organizations deny inclusion of diverse perspectives, be it age, gender, race, experience level.
I found a way to deal with my “you’re not perfect” art critic — an unusual class that approached drawing as a moment of wild abandon rather than an exercise in perfection. Whatever shows up on paper, comes from the full expressive self rather than some fixed model of perfection set in my mind years ago. Pages of squiggles, lines, swoops, shapes, and colors. I’m loving the “mistakes” of my unique style.
What is your tendency—
avoid mistakes at all costs or relish the opportunity to learn?
Photo: JMaliszewski, 2021. The conch shell I painted with watercolor and ink during my ‘wild abandon’ art class. To Live Boldly, I needed to confront my art critic and adopt a view that adds more possibility and joy to my “imperfection.”
Story adapted from the Living Boldly newsletter, June 2021.