The Secret Guide to Screwing Up

August 24, 2018

Often times all it takes to be great is to start by screwing up. Here is how.

Start with a first step. Create that first video. Write that short essay. Send that intro email. Go for that 15-minute jog. Most of us are taught that everything has to be done perfectly while growing up. School teaches us that anything less than a perfect score is… well… imperfect.

This is where the problem starts. When the only way we know how to do things is to do them perfectly, it becomes impossible to get started.

People who define themselves as “perfectionists” are particularly the kind of people who rarely get anything done. The need to get something “just right” the first time around can be so overwhelming that nothing ever truly happens.

When humans know that we can’t get something done the way we truly want to, procrastination becomes a mechanism of self-defense. Add up enough procrastination and we end up feeling anxiety, depression, and in a highly likely event of a missed deadline.

Overcoming the perfectionist mental block is not easy, but it is possible - even if we are terrible at whatever it is we are doing.

Here is my clumsy guide to overcoming the idea that “done is better than perfect”, and that the first time we do things, they will be clumsy, poorly done, and for most of us mortals out there, the only path toward actually succeeding at anything.

1. Itsy bitsy pieces are the key

How often is it that we feel like we are “in the zone”? To be in the zone, our skill level has to be almost perfectly matched to whatever it is we are trying to accomplish. If the challenge in front of us is too big, the task gets infuriating. If the task is too small, it gets tedious.

It is likely that while trying to accomplish something we will hit a wall. Sometimes, the way to push through this wall is to simply make things just a wee-bit easier. This typically means breaking down a monster task into smaller pieces.

Whenever we start to learn something, most of us are going to be terrible at it. If we can find a way to break up challenges that match our level of skill, we can still find a way to get in the zone even when we have a low level of skill.

If after breaking the task down into itsy bitsy pieces we still don’t get the result we wanted, let’s not beat ourselves up. Instead, spend that time to try again. And again. And again. All the time that we might spend beating ourselves up is the time that we could spend reaching perfecting.

Being creative and having great ideas is not about one day waking up and magically having one massive breakthrough. Creativity is about spending a ton of time building out ideas, trying new tiny things all over the place.

2. Keep it real, yo

Staying optimistic is often-times great, but a better strategy for succeeding at life might be to get over mental blocks by staying as realistic as possible. Try to think about what could happen if whatever it is we do doesn’t end up being perfect.

In order to more effectively think about what could happen, it might be a good idea to borrow a few ideas from behavioral therapy. F

In behavioral therapy there is a technique where people are asked the following:

  • What is the fear/worst-case scenario?
  • How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will happen?
  • How truly terrible is the worst-case scenario?

The point of asking these questions is to try to think critically about the consequences of what may happen if the worst-case scenario happens, to learn how realistic the worst-case scenario is, and to think about if the worst case scenario is truly as bad as we think it is.

For example, while I am writing this blog post, I know that it will not end up being perfect.

  • What is the fear/worst case scenario? Well… I may say stupid things :)
  • How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will happen? Very likely!
  • How truly terrible is the worst-case scenario? Not terrible at all… I should just do it and see what happens.

In the above example, the true worst case scenario is that I will feel uncomfortable if someone calls me out for something stupid I said in this blog post, but hey… I’ll survive!

3. Education is key

It is absolutely crucial that we understand that nothing will come out right the first time we try something. In order to get something right, we will need education and training.

Being paralyzed by procrastination sometimes comes by the misconception that experts are able to sit down and pump out perfect products out without even flinching. It helps to understand that everyone, even the masters of disaster, are actually going through similar struggles as us, just at different skill levels.

Most people quit when they try something and they learn that their end result simply sucked. This is a mediocre way of thinking and it’s to be avoided at all costs.

Perfectionists typically want to hide mistakes from others. Hiding our mistakes keeps up from making human connections with others and from continuing to do something that we may love just because of the fear of making mistakes.

Let’s get out there and fail gracefully!

4. Screw up with intention

To learn more about the “worst-case scenario” we spoke of, to get over the fear, try failing on purpose. Try it just a little bit. Fail quickly and efficiently. If we will get a more in-depth look into what it feels like to experience that worst-case scenario and, in most cases, realize that our fear was senseless.

Screwing up with intention is something that should happen all the time.

By screwing up often and with intention, we build up a high resiliency to imperfections and learn to get things done and bounce back from failures. This right here is the end-goal.

5. Keep standards high like a kite

The perfectionists often mention that their success is thanks to their… ehem… perfectionism. While this is true in several ways, perfectionism is also what could be holding us back from even greater success.

Keeping that perfectionism mindset, in most scenarios, will keep us from doing what we have to do, it will keep us from getting started. This does not mean that we have to lower our standards. We just have to know that the first attempt at something new will be terrible. After this, we will have a benchmark to which we can measure ourselves against. We have to continue improving our previous score!

Keeping standards high like a kite can be especially high when attempting a new type of task or when learning a new skill. It is incredibly hard and messy to learn something new, and living with the discomfort of all that mess is the most difficult part.

However, as we have already talked about, breaking these new and difficult tasks into smaller pieces, surviving one mistake at a time, and knowing where we want to end up, will make this journey to perfection more than reachable.

Whatever it is you’re trying to do, don’t give up prematurely. Make sure that you’ve done your absolute best and continue to do what you love.

Written by Victor Dozal who lives and works in Austin, TX. He enjoys building useful things, writing about his journey as an engineer, and consuming lots of coffee. You should subscribe to him on YouTube :)

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