Making mistakes is a double-edged sword in the software business. On the one hand, the whole profession is all about looking for, fixing and avoiding mistakes. A mistake in the wrong place can be fateful, or at least cause quite a bit of trouble.
On the other hand, making mistakes is fuel for learning and a sign that you’re leaving your comfort zone, challenging yourself and innovating new things. It can also be a sign of appropriate prioritisation: a typo in an email is not dangerous, carelessness in implementation is. And you can’t prevent all mistakes, no matter what you do.
If someone never makes mistakes, it can, in theory, mean that they are a supreme being alike to an omnipotent god. However, it’s more likely that they’re someone who plays it safe and polishes their work ad nauseum.
If you relentlessly strive for flawlessness, you might be a perfectionist. And that’s not as good a thing as you might think.
There are many ways to pursue flawlessness
It’s likely that everyone has heard, or perhaps even said, something like: We all make mistakes. It happens. Better luck next time. Couldn’t be helped. You win some, you lose some.
We know and acknowledge that making mistakes is a part of life. However, most of us avoid making a mistake as if it were the coronavirus. That’s rather understandable: no one really wants to fix their own mistakes – let alone hear that someone else has fixed their work later.
However, it matters enormously why and how you avoid mistakes.
A healthy approach to mistakes is a desire to do a good job and achieve a good-quality product. A quality-oriented person:
- Checks two or three times what they’re doing at the critical moments.
- Tries to give enough attention to the important things.
- Asks for help, shows their unfinished work to others and requests feedback.
- Upon making a mistake, feels bad about it for a moment and then thinks about what they can learn from it to do better next time.
Perfectionism is an unhealthy approach to mistakes. A perfectionist:
- Fears that they’re inadequate and will be revealed as incompetent.
- Thinks it’s dangerous to make mistakes and avoids them at all costs.
- Fears feedback, because it might include criticism, and will show their unfinished work to others only over their dead body.
- Feels mentally and physically sick at the mere thought of the possibility that they might have made a mistake.
- Upon making a mistake, berates themselves harshly and spends even more time nit-picking their work in the future.
Can a mistake be a good thing?
There are of course many things, places and times where mistakes have dire consequences and it’s critical to avoid them. In these situations, a mistake truly is a bad thing, end of story. But there are also situations where we should downright encourage ourselves to make mistakes.
We learn from our mistakes. The less familiar we are with what we’re doing, the more likely it is that we’ll make a mistake. Mistakes happen when we take risks, plan for new things and work on things we can’t do yet.
That’s why mistakes are not always a sign of carelessness or incompetence. Quite the contrary: they can also be a sign that we’re working on something new, we’re learning and being courageously innovative.
If you treat all mistakes as equally bad, it’s very easy to find yourself in a position of avoiding all uncertainties. That’s no good for your professional and personal growth.
Strive for quality, not flawlessness
Instead of striving for flawlessness, pursue quality instead. A quality-oriented person is interested in how good a job they’re currently doing and how they could do even better. A quality-oriented person can handle finding mistakes, because those mistakes can then be fixed, and the final result is even better.
Quality doesn’t mean perfect; it means appropriate to the situation. Sometimes lower quality does the job, sometimes only the best will suffice. That depends on what the client has asked for and what has been agreed. A quality-focused person can adapt to situations, since the goal is no longer pure, ever-lasting perfection.
A first step towards becoming quality-oriented is slowly and carefully acclimating yourself to feedback and suggestions for improvement. When you regularly ask for feedback, you’re forced to consider your flaws and the things you could do better at. When you find something like that, take a deep breath and remind yourself: “I’m enough, and good enough, even though my work could be even better.” Talking it over with a safe person also helps you handle feedback constructively.
That’s how you begin to slowly move from demanding perfection towards a healthy readiness for professional growth.
TL;DR: Flawlessness can take away the ability to challenge yourself, learn and dare to do things
- In the software business, it’s typical to avoid mistakes to your last breath, and in many situations, that’s necessary.
- However, there are also situations where it’s good to make mistakes. They show that you have courage, are learning new things, want to innovate and challenge yourself.
- If you consider all mistakes to be equally serious, you can find yourself in a situation where you no longer dare to do anything that could lead to a mistake.
- If the heart of your aversion to mistakes is a fear of your own inadequacy, that can prevent you from accepting feedback and suggestions.
- Instead of flawlessness, you should strive for quality and improving the quality of your work.
- A quality-oriented person delights in finding a mistake, because that mistake can then be fixed.
- You can begin to calm down your fear of mistakes by asking for feedback and going over it with a safe person in a controlled environment.