Busy with revision or working on your dissertation? Are you making a lot of effort trying to avoid making mistakes?
We all want to do well and aspire to achieve our goals, but do not want to make mistakes for fear of failing to achieve the results we hope for.
So, how did we come to think that failure was not acceptable? Our culture praises those who make remarkable accomplishments, giving an erroneous perception that these results were achieved with no mistakes.
There is a long journey from the initial efforts to completing a degree, and a lot of uncertainty as life is unpredictable. It is a human characteristic to want to avoid the feelings of frustration and disappointment when things do not work out well. We may have doubts about our ability and when mistakes or setbacks happen, it can affect our motivation and confidence.
It is normal to have self-doubts when working on an important task, but we tend to think this means we lack confidence. As a result, it erodes our belief in our ability to achieve our goals. Sometimes, we discount our abilities, resources, and capacity to deal with challenges which undermine our confidence in our ability to achieve our goals.
Maintaining an open mind helps to deal with doubts. When we ask questions, it allows us to widen our perspective to explore different options. Persevering with our efforts enables us to make progress.
What holds us back?
Often, we do not try out new things because it is hard to deal with frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, and distress at the thought of not achieving our goals. Once we identify what we are concerned about, we can explore ways of dealing with the situation. Learning to embrace the discomfort enables us to remain steadfast in our endeavors (Oettingen, 2015).
In a world of many options to choose from, it is difficult to decide. We make choices all the time, and often there is a lot of uncertainty, so we need to take a chance if we want to achieve something we value.
When deciding what options to take, it is not possible to anticipate all consequences, so it is difficult to visualise how things will unfold and therefore, it is challenging to plan for a demanding goal.
Our attitude to risk can influence whether we go ahead with our goals. For example, when deciding to start a degree, we may consider the financial implications, how difficult we imagine the course will be and whether we can manage the pressure or wonder how hard it could be to establish new relationships. So, if we do not want to take risks, we will look for safer options.
What can we do about it?
Normalise the feeling: it happens to all of us. It is part of our human experience. Remembering that we have failed before and focusing on what we learned from the experience. J.K. Rowling described her experience of having submitted her manuscript and being rejected several times before she got a contract.
Failure is more common that we imagine, and it takes courage to face the situation and prioritise what is of value. Nurturing the belief that with our efforts, we can make progress and achieve our goals.
Redefine the meaning of failure: We can view it as feedback. We may not like it, but it gives us information that we can use to make changes going forward. Examining the history of most developments, people often used a trial-and-error approach. By using this same method, we can figure out what works and what does not to make progress with our goals.
We can review the steps we took to identify where things went wrong to use the information to improve our work. Here, mistakes are an integral part of learning (Dweck, 2016).
Take small steps: To get started with a project, break it down into small steps. When we focus on the progress we are making, it boosts motivation, confidence and prevent procrastination.
We tend to underestimate the effect of small steps because it seems insignificant in comparison to the enormity of the task. However, every step is necessary to complete it, so each step is progress, built on the previous one.
Manage expectations: When having self-doubt or worry about your ability to do well, take time to reflect. We tend to focus on our mistakes without taking time to consider external factors that are not within control. Explore alternative ways to mitigate them and focus on what you can control.
Practice acknowledging the feelings and accepting they are part of our human condition. Self-compassion can reduce negative self-talk, allowing us to make progress with the task (Neff, 2011).
Do something: We can manage challenges when we can trust our ability to learn and persevere with tasks. When we take action, even a small step boosts our motivation. Once we start, the next step is easier to do.
As Dweck (2017) identified, it is essential to emphasise effort over ability. We can persevere with a task when we can see the hard work relates to the task, so the challenge motivates us (Bandura, 1997).
Focus on possibilities: When reflect and consider what we can learn from our experiences, possibilities emerge. Instead of thinking “I cannot do it” we have a choice: we can continue with this train or thought or pause and change direction.
For example, say “I can do something different now and see what options open up.” As we practise this skill, we can boost our confidence to stretch beyond our comfort zone (Molinsky, 2017).
Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company..
David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.
Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.
Gilovich, T. & Medvec, V.H.(1995) The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological review, Vol 102 (2), 379-395. American Psychological Association Inc.
Molinsky, A. (2017) Reach. How to build confidence and step outside your comfort zone. London: Penguin.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.
Pink, D. (2009) Drive. The surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Cannongate.
Schwartz, B. (2004) The paradox of choice. Why less is more. New York: Harper Collins.
Wilson, T. D. (2011) Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. London: Allen Lane.