This tip is one that speaks to me on a personal note, and I bet I’m not alone. As a kid, I had no problem appearing foolish, silly, or stupid. By myself, with my dogs, I have no problem being a complete goon. But looking foolish, or stupid, or failing at something in front of others is something that has gotten harder and harder for me to be comfortable with as I’ve become a more skilled and experienced performer. I don’t want people to see me fail! I don’t want to post videos of my bad runs. I have a harder time in seminars and workshops dealing with failure in front of others. I don’t want my students or peers to think less of me or my skills when they see me stumble or make a mistake.
And yet, the ability to be willing to look stupid, or foolish – the ability to fail unabashedly and get up again, focused only on how to improve the next time, with no concern about how any of it looks to others, is crucial to real improvement.
The only way to improve is to constantly be working at the edges of your skill level.
And, if you’re working at the edges of your skill level, you’re going to fail. Unless you’re a truly enlightened individual, at some point, the notion that you’d rather avoid looking foolish is going to crop up, and a little voice is going to tell you that you’d be better off slipping back down to an area you’re comfortable and skilled with; a level where you’re less likely to fail, less likely to look stupid or foolish. The social-emotional burn is real.
Top performers are willing to fail, and they’re willing to do so repeatedly in the name of improvement. So, how do you ensure that you’re always comfortable looking silly, or foolish, or stupid? How can you avoid the trap of avoiding expanding your skillset in the name of “looking good”? When it comes to physical exercise, we all expect to feel discomfort – after all, the saying goes, ‘no pain, no gain,’ right?
As dog trainers, most of us have heard of the 80/20 rule when it comes to training – if our dogs aren’t experiencing at least 20% failure, we’re probably not actually growing their understanding of a behavior. Mistakes are essential to progress. Being able to adopt this attitude when it comes to learning new skills is the key to being able to grow effectively – to make the necessary mistakes, without being overly disheartened emotionally by them, despite the emotional discomfort that making those mistakes may bring.
So, when it comes to the social-emotional burn and making mistakes, here’s a saying that might be a good one to adopt: no burn, no learn.
If you have an instructor, coach, or group of friends that you train with, have a conversation about failure, and how mistakes serve as guideposts you use to get better. Mistakes and failure should not be taken to heart – you may fail, but you are NOT a failure! Make sure that people around you are all on the same page with this, and be supportive of one another, encouraging one another to get to, and stay in that space, where mistakes happen, and make sure you are all ready to remind one another that mistakes just mean you’re on the edge, growing your skill level. Create a culture where making mistakes is encouraged, and where looking foolish or stupid is just something that lightens the mood – where you know that your companions are laughing with you and not at you, because looking silly is totally okay, and you’re all prepared to come to one another’s aid if something goes seriously wrong.
If you’re by yourself, like I am, put some inspirational posters or signs in your training space. Keep external reminders handy to continually encourage yourself to reach, and to remind yourself not to interpret mistakes as verdicts or judgements on you as a person, but as pieces of information that you’ll use to improve your performances and training.
Do you have inspirational quotes, posters, or signs in your training area that helps you to remember that making mistakes, and looking stupid or foolish is okay, and that it’s an ability to be valued, rather than something to be avoided?
If you’re part of a group, what does your group do, if anything, to encourage mistake making as a natural part of growth?
Come up with a motto, something short and memorable, that will encourage you to keep making mistakes, even at the risk of feeling silly, foolish, clumsy, awkward, or stupid. One company that Daniel Coyle, the author of The Little Book of Talent, interviewed, had this motto: “Once a week, you should make a decision at work that scares you.”
Once a week, make a handling or training decision that scares you!
Here are a few more tips from Daniel Coyle from his website, on making the burn something to be welcomed, rather than avoided:
- Target and celebrate small wins. Amid the clumsiness of the start, there are moments of figuring out fundamentals, of making small improvements. Find them, name them, and highlight them.
- Share your screw-ups. Seek people and cultures that encourage openness about failure.
- Embrace irrationality. Forget the notion of steady, linear progress, because that’s not the way learning happens. Learning happens slowly and painfully at first, and then with surprising speed. These big leaps don’t seem logical. But if you put the time in, they are inevitable.