What if You Could Manage Mistakes Before Making Them?
An exploration of personal precognition and risk
Famed organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently published a listicle on CNBC’s website outlining the “life changes” practiced by successful people.
One item in particular caught my eye. Grant suggests that we “set a mistake budget.” The point of that, he writes, is to “encourage trial and error, set a goal for the minimum number of mistakes you want to make per day or per week. When you expect to stumble, you ruminate about it less — and improve more.”
I’m intrigued by the notion that we can exert such control over our lives: Next week, I’m allowed to make four mistakes. The week after, only two. And at the end of the month, I crack down: zero mistakes will be tolerated. That might be a tough week.
But I also take Grant’s point. A mistake budget is an open acknowledgment that you will make mistakes. This can be freeing, for instead of stressing out over how to avoid a misstep, you presuppose that missteps are inevitable.
That approach gives you permission to take some risks (perhaps in proportion to the mistake budget you’ve set), knowing that things may not go entirely smoothly, or go your way at all. And you’ve already decided to let that be okay, to the extent you’re able.
The psychological calculation inherent in setting a mistake budget may help to de-fang the fear and horror that go along with making mistakes.
Grant’s conceit is not too far off from the old-school “calorie budget” that dieters set for themselves (back when there was far less stigma associated with wanting to lose weight). If you gave yourself permission in advance to cheat on your diet—to eat a couple of brownies on Saturday night—then you could escape the guilt that might otherwise inevitably hound you for days.
The budgeting paradigm is a neat trick that lets you let yourself down gently—to admit that you are not perfect, that you occasionally stray from self-imposed standards, and that you accept yourself, warts and all.
Isn’t self-acceptance lovely? Yes, of course. And not easy to come by for those of us who cannot shake the idea that deep down, we are supposed to be perfect—or to come as close as possible, as often as possible.
For aspiring perfectionists, mistakes are a deviation from our internalized norm, and therefore, we’re wounded when we make them; our equilibrium is knocked off course. Which, in reality, means we’re knocked off course a lot, since mistakes are part of life.
All the more reason, perhaps, to embrace the inevitable and allow ourselves a couple of mistakes on any given day, week, or month. How about: a mistake budget for life? Wouldn’t that be freeing? Like a get-out-of-jail-free card?
And can setting a mistake budget help us cut down on prolonged bouts of overthinking? Grant seems to think so. He posits that overt anticipation (mistakes will be made…) cuts down on wearying rumination. In other words, by projecting what may go wrong—perhaps visualizing mistakes you are likely to make based on circumstances—you may be able to short-circuit the overthinking that often accompanies the dread you feel when you’re about to incur a risk, whether that’s speaking to a group of skeptical investors or telling your step-father he’s not invited to Thanksgiving.
Insipid quip of the day:
“Life is meant to be lived, not over-thought.”
Indeed, experts who study overthinking refer to the hamster wheel of repetitive thoughts that define this emotional state as revving or rumination. Left unchecked, overthinking can lead to crippling anxiety and depression and all that goes with it, such as insomnia and analysis-paralysis, leaving you barely able to function.
Perhaps we should keep an open mind about a tool like mistake-budgeting that has the potential to mitigate bouts of overthinking and crippling self-criticism.
Which brings me around, finally, to doubt. (Hey, this is Doubt Monster, after all.)
The moment I learned about the mistake budget, I wondered if there might be something to the notion of setting a doubt budget.
More on that subject next week.