Give Perfectionism Its Walking Papers: Five Reasons You Should Be Willing to Make Mistakes

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” —George Bernard Shaw, British playwright.

One of the first productivity concepts we all learn is to avoid perfectionism, and most of us do make the attempt. Even so, it’s an insidious habit, one reinforced rather than overridden by many leaders. Often, your managers want you to get things right the first time, ASAP, so they can show impressive results to their managers.

But true perfectionism kills efficiency. It slows you down and doesn’t conform to reality. You can never plan for everything. While I’m not a big fan of the “good enough for government work” concept, I do believe there’s a certain point where you do the best you can with what you have and move on, making tweaks where possible and compromising with the real world on the rest. Sometimes you succeed brilliantly, sometimes you make awful mistakes—and that’s fine.

True productivity comes from allowing yourself to make mistakes. Do so, and you’ll succeed more often than any ten perfectionists.

Now: I’m not going to tell you to fail often, fail forward, or learn from failure, or whatever the current buzzword bingo term is for accumulating experience. That you should be willing to make mistakes ought to be as obvious as breathing by now. The important thing is why you should bother, so consider these five good reasons.

  1. You may discover something completely unexpected. In 1928, Scottish physician and researcher Alexander Fleming went on vacation and returned to find he’d made a dangerous mistake: he’d forgotten to clean up his messy workbench after experimenting with staphylococcus bacteria. In the interim, a wild mold had contaminated his staph colonies—and oddly enough, had inhibited their normal growth. Eventually, his mistake became famous as Penicillin G, the first antibiotic.

  2. You may engage your subconscious mind. In 1845, Elias Howe had an idea for a machine that could sew cloth together without the need for a trained seamstress, but try as he might, he couldn’t make it work. One night, after a series of mistakes and failures, he dreamed he had been surrounded by cannibals, who waved their spears up and down. Each spear had a hole in the shaft just above the point. The next morning, he tried a new method whereby he passed the thread through a hole near the point of the needle, not the traditional end… and it worked! His subconscious mind had handed him a workable idea by means of a nightmare.

  3. Mistakes close off dead ends. Just because you’ve made a mistake doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You’ve just tried a way of doing something that didn’t work. If you’re like me, you’ve tried a few driving “shortcuts” that didn’t end where you expected, or maybe experimented with a cooking ingredient that didn’t produce the result you wanted. A mistake? Sure. But everything in life, including science, progresses this way: more often by a willingness to keep going until you hit a dead end or bounce off a wall than by making quantum leaps. Progress often more advances in a “drunkard’s walk” than a straightaway.

  4. Refusing to risk mistakes ruins your potential. While Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a musical prodigy from an early age, I’m willing to bet he struck a few sour notes during his first few times at the keyboard (though, by all accounts, they were very few). Even so, he didn’t give up. No matter your career path, you will make mistakes. If you’re determined to avoid all mistakes, you’ll get nowhere and learn nothing. Imagine a world without Eine Kliene Nachtmusik, just because young Mozart refused to chance any mistakes beyond his first few. Learning from mistakes improves your skill set later.

  5. Mistakes proving the best possible life lessons. Even when they hurt, they’re part of being human, teaching you what truly matters. You learn how to forgive yourself and others, and let go of fear once you realize most mistakes aren’t too bad. They help you grow mentally, socially, and intellectually—and you don’t pile up regrets for never trying things that might have helped you become a better person and a more productive worker.

Step by Misstep

As Mrs. Fizzle says on The Magic School Bus: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Not everything you try will work out; probably, most things don’t. But like wildcat oil wells, the occasional success among a forest of dry holes may just be the one that really pays off, and helps you define a safe, productive path for you to follow through life.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email, or CONTACT US.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Laura Stack’s session with a group of our seasoned operations managers was eye-opening. We all learned new ways to be more productive with the tools we already have. I’ve never seen each of our seasoned, experienced operations managers so engaged in a session. Many of our senior and mid-level leaders were wowed by what they learned and have already begun using the new techniques with their teams.”
—Mary Pawlowski, Learning Design, Piedmont Natural Gas

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland