How Being Wrong is Part of Success

Photo by
Nissor Abdourazakov

Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

~Winston Churchill

Before I moved from Minneapolis to New York City in 2006, I worked in the prepress production department of a family-owned advertising agency that is consistently listed as one of the best places to work in Minneapolis, for good reason. (OK, I will spill: It’s Periscope.)

We had a saying there that I still refer to whenever I need it (which is often): “It’s okaaaayyyy to be wrong!” When someone discovered that she had made a mistake, she would raise her hand in the air and say, “I was wrong; it’s okay to be wrong.”

There was no blame. There was no asking whose fault it was and firing them or making them feel bad. It was a culture of acceptance of mistakes.

This allowed us to learn from them and improve.

We talked about our mistakes — what they were, how they happened and how we could avoid making them in the future. We talked about how we could do better, and because we treated them as a learning opportunity instead of a shameful failure, our mistakes led to better work.

This has been a tough thing for me to learn.

You Must Be Perfect

My mom did not think it was okay to be wrong.

A few years back when I was visiting Minneapolis, she loaned me her second car so I wouldn’t have to rent one. I accidentally left one of my liquid ink pens uncapped on the passenger seat.

Fabric sucks the ink out of those things at light speed, and it left a spot about the size of a dime. When I mentioned it to Mom, she said, “It’s a good thing that wasn’t my new car, because if it were, I would be mad.”

I know my mom doesn’t think about this consciously, but the underlying message there is: I value my things more than you. It’s not okay to spill things, break things and otherwise screw up. You must do everything perfectly, or I will get mad.

As an adult, I can look at that message and consciously know that something is wrong with it.

As an adult, I can think of myself as a kid — still trying to figure out how the world works, how my own body works, still growing into my motor skills, my big chubby fingers, my still-developing brain — and realize that I was being subtly told that mistakes were not okay.

And this at a time when it was inevitable that I would make a billion of them.

A Never-Fail Strategy Fails

As an adult, I know that anger, properly, is a response to an injustice. Spilling ink on a car seat is not an injustice. I had not wronged my mom. It was an accident. It was not a big deal. Certainly not a cause for anger — even if it had been her brand new car.

But as a kid, all I knew to do was to avoid my mother’s anger by avoiding mistakes. I grew up into a girl who tried to never fail.

My klutziness, my messiness, any moment of carelessness — all were sources of shame. Not knowing how to do something and having to be taught, especially if it were something physically awkward — whether it was how to use chopsticks or how to shoot pool or how to bowl — could bring me to tears in seconds.

My “never failing” strategy didn’t work out so well. I still made mistakes, and yet I missed out on the lessons I could have learned, the ways I could improve, the successes I could have had, because I hid my face in shame rather than deal with them head on.

I’m still afraid that I’ll fail at the thing I love to do the most. I’m afraid it won’t have meaning in the real world — this writing thing I’m doing, just as my mother always predicted. That I will need that backup plan that I don’t really have.

Not Afraid Anymore

That fear has nearly paralyzed me for many years. It has kept me from sharing and connecting.

I’m finished with that now. I will not be afraid of spilled ink anymore.

I will spill it all over the place to get where I need to go. To this day my mother still tells me I need to be more careful, even though I am one of the most careful, detail-oriented people in the world.

I still forget things. I still misplace things. I still spill things. I still fail.

Some of the time.

But now I know: All of that is normal and necessary. All of that is life; it’s figuring things out; it’s being who you are. It’s learning.

I am not infallible, and I never will be, and I don’t need to be. Because it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to be wrong.

How has being wrong helped you succeed?

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