It’s a great day to make mistakes

Reading time: 2 and a half minutes

Is perfectionism spoiling your writing? Here’s what you can tell yourself to deal with that problem…

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. One of the most embarrassing ones relates to my brief but exciting life as a newspaper books editor in 1984. My main responsibilities? I had to assign book reviews and speak with authors.

I was only in my twenties at the time and never imagined I’d have the opportunity to interview such well-known Canadian writers as W.O. Mitchell, Timothy Findley and June Callwood. My meeting with Callwood was particularly challenging, because I knew her son, Casey, had been killed in a motorcycle accident, only two years before. And I was going to have to ask her about him.

Nevertheless, the conversation went well and June was funny, thoughtful and thoroughly charming. She cried when she spoke about her son, but the experience didn’t completely traumatize either of us.

When I went to write the story, however, I was exhausted and didn’t perform my usual obsessive self-edit. Nor did the copy editor who approved the story. The next day, under my own byline, I noticed I’d written the word “they’re” when I’d meant “there.”

Talk about embarrassing. Here I was a books editor. For a major daily newspaper. Writing a story about one of Canada’s best-known writers and journalists. And I’d made a grade 5 grammatical error.

While — thankfully — no lives were lost, my mistake humiliated me and I still cringe over it some 29 years later.

It was also one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Although I still err when I’m writing (I’m not a natural proofreader), I am very careful around homophones now. In short, my mistake taught me to be more fastidious.

Mistakes are like that. If we can live through the horror of them, they’ll teach us unforgettable lessons. Someone recently sent me a link to a terrific four-minute video tantalizingly titled: “The Perfectionism Cure.” I urge you to watch and listen to it.

The writer and narrator, Dr Jennifer Gresham, is a research scientist for the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. She’s also a mother and it was a talk with her six-year-old daughter that caused her to make this video.

Her daughter asked, “Mommy, why is it that no one can make mistakes?”

This pointed question caused Gresham to reflect on her own career as a scientist, where she knew that scientific discoveries were hardly ever anticipated, never mind planned. In fact, such discoveries are often born out of mistakes in the lab. I’ve written on this blog about scientist Norm Larsen, the inventor of WD-40, who went through 39 failures before he devised a product that actually worked.

But Gresham goes beyond the science. Referring to the rest of our lives, she argues that fear of failure, “starts with our parents and then it’s our teachers and then it’s our bosses and pretty soon it’s ourselves…”

I agree! This is precisely the harsh, ugly voice that keeps many of us from writing. We’ll never be good enough, it tells us. We need more talent. We need to work harder. We don’t have the time. What will people think if we write something that’s silly? Or boring? Or inept?

I like the new ritual that Gresham and her daughter have started. Every day one of them reminds the other: it’s a great day to make a mistake. “That’s where the learning is,” Gresham says. “Until you prioritize learning over performance you’ll prevent yourself from having those eureka moments.”

If you want to write, don’t think about your performance – i.e., the finished product. Instead, focus on what you’re learning. Tell yourself it’s a great day to make mistakes.

The very best thing about writing is that you will have plenty of time to fix those mistakes. Later. When you get around to editing.

How do you deal with mistakes in your own life and writing? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)