Oh no, how wonderful
– Text by Oda Albers
A terrible mistake – there’s nothing that we fear more. Already as children we learn: we’re meant to get things right. Doing things properly means praise. And yet – everyone makes mistakes, and perhaps they also serve a useful purpose?
A little baby reaches out for a ring, missing it by inches. It tries again. And again – there, now baby’s got it! The parents rejoice. Well done! Terrific! We praise success right from the start. And so it goes on – people praise accuracy and perfection across the world. A dictation without any mistakes. A good mark! Landing on your feet after a ground flip? A medal! And such ethos of a performance-oriented society automatically steals its way into our core: practice till the performance is perfect! Don’t fail! Don’t go wrong! Don’t make any mistakes!
And if anything does go wrong? Then the mother, teacher or friend comforts us with the words: you learn from your mistakes. And there is truth in that. Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the electrical light bulb, recognised this in 1879 already and is often cited as a pioneer in failure culture. He made thousands of attempts before he succeeded in making the light bulb work. Later, the following anecdote made the rounds: after the many fruitless attempts, one of his staff said: “We’ve failed,” but Edison answered: “I haven’t failed. I now know 1,000 ways how not to build a light bulb.”
That is over 140 years ago – the stigma, the taboo of the mistake remained. Failure, particularly on a professional scale, was, quite literally, considered a “declaration of bankruptcy”. Yet upon closer scrutiny of the stories that led up to ground-breaking inventions, countless examples show how successful discoveries have resulted from mistakes. The ice lolly, for example, was created in 1905 when one frosty night a glass of lemonade with a stick in it was forgotten on a terrace. The forgetful inventor Frank Epperson had the marvellous principle patented. Or crisps, nice and crunchy: evolved from a fried potato cut not thin enough. And the rubber for subsequent Goodyear tyres was the chemical reaction after an accident took place – Charles Goodyear had dropped the rubber substance onto a hot plate. …
It was not until the new millennium that first companies began to look at mistakes with interest rather than with a view to punishment, and tried to introduce feedback cultures or supervision. The point was to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, but at least making new ones. Then, in 2012 in Mexico, a real paradigm shift took place when an event culture of failure emerged: the Fuckup Nights. The concept: dealing with flops and failure confidently on stage. And then to applaud them! In other words, a true celebration of failure. An increasing number of well-known executives of large companies speak about their mistakes, allow their audiences to laugh loudly, groan with sympathy or cry out in shame. The topics are endless – magazines that have hit a brick wall, millions blown out of the window, unsuccessful productions…
www.fuckupnights.com now features 15,000 of these misfortunes from 90 countries, with current dates and contacts of the worldwide network. The purpose: to understand what you’ll never need to live through again, what you’ve learnt and what positive aspect, what good thing, has perhaps emerged from the experience. To recognise as a community that failure can sometimes be the key to success.
This all makes good sense and is encouraging. But how exactly to loosen up when it comes to mistakes? How to manage not to be scared of mistakes? To look back at mistakes, a wrong turn, missed opportunities or indeed failure in a relaxed way? After all, not every mess-up leads to genius – sometimes it’s just annoying, super embarrassing or indeed a real catastrophe. Coaches and psychologists agree: there’s no patent remedy. But like for the baby trying to get hold of the ring – being off the mark is part of life.
And the fear of making mistakes follows its own logic: to prevent them, we concentrate or try harder – and discover or build skills and success for ourselves. Once you’ve made your mistake, however, it’s worth taking a close look: have I affected others – let someone down, hurt or forgotten people or made trouble for them? In that case, there’s only one option, and that is to apologise. If you’ve harmed yourself, reflection helps, without beating yourself up in the process: why didn’t I take better care in that situation?
Yet anyone whose own mistake really leads to profound guilt and to persistent unpleasant emotion that can’t be shaken off will need to work on reconciliation – reconciliation with your own fallibility. In psychology this is considered a high art: forgiving yourself is a lot harder than forgiving others, as we’ve been taught that forgiveness comes from the outside, not from within. Similar to praise. For classical glitches and slip-ups, business coach Simone Janson suggests: don’t make the mistake after the mistake by covering it up in embarrassment; instead stand up to it – ideally with quick wit and a healthy dose of humour. Her mantra: “I myself decide what’s embarrassing.”