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To Err Is Human: Why Making Mistakes Is Good for You

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The start of every New Year for me usually seems to mean yet another attempt to be more decisive in life. Unfortunately, what prompts my indecision is the fear of making a mistake, which is a much harder trait to lose—especially because it’s something all too many of us have in common.

We hesitate over choices because the idea of being wrong is too scary to shake off. Starting when we’re young, the ramifications of potential failure (via report cards, for instance) are ingrained in us, and society only enforces these notions even more as we get older.

It doesn’t help that the human brain is more likely to remember cringe-worthy times than anything else. Otherwise, why else do I recall next to nothing about the classic literary theorists of my college days but can recount every minute detail of the time I answered a question incorrectly in one of my literature classes? Believe it or not, however, this selective memory is quite beneficial; despite what some teachers or bosses might tell you, making mistakes can actually be a key to success.

Every Mistake’s a Memorable One
Joan Collins once famously said, “Show me a person who has never made a mistake, and I’ll show you someone who has never achieved much.” Even if we shudder at the thought of messing up, it’s true that we often learn well from it—if only to prevent erring similarly in the future. The brain’s ability to store information about events related to mistakes more accurately than it does other events is just one of our many survivalist adaptations.

When someone is in a high-stress situation (and feeling humiliated by giving the wrong answer in class or in a business meeting certainly qualifies as such), the brain makes a point of remembering every detail to protect that person in the future. In fact, memories created this way are much more resilient and long-lasting than those with less highly charged emotional ties. For instance, if you meet someone once, it’s unlikely that you’ll remember that person for the rest of your life; you need to encounter him or her a few times after that to refresh your memory. Active memories like these need some amount of upkeep for sustenance.

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This is so inspiring. I relate so much to this piece. You mentioned indecisiveness due to fear of being wrong and, in turn, embarrassed. I am trying to break my habit of indecisiveness and I think it starts with knowing the root of the problem, which as you helped me to realize, is fear. I enjoyed reading about this topic!

January 18, 2010 - 8:55am
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