Why You Shouldn’t be Afraid of Making Mistakes


We learn from failure, not from success” Bram Stoker

I’m a perfectionist of the worst kind – the kind who wants everything to work perfectly yet instantaneously, which is, of course, a completely unrealistic expectation. When I was younger, this combination – of striving for perfection but being unwilling to risk failing – made me defeatist. I gave up on many things, not because I lacked the drive or passion, but because I genuinely believed that not managing to achieve results quickly meant that I was talentless and that being slow to progress meant it was hopeless. When it came to horses, I fell completely for the fairy-tale ending of every horse movie ever made – believing that the moment I found that connection with my horse, everything would magically fall into place. It took me a long time to realise that making mistakes is the most important part of the process. That perfection is only the inspiration that keeps us pushing forward – it is almost never actually achievable.

I’m no longer afraid of making mistakes. These days I actively seek out the opportunity to make them, often to the frustration of others. My instructor often gets frustrated with me for not making progress quicker, but I know that in order to understand how to do something ‘right’, I need to first experiment with the many ways of doing it ‘wrong’. Not everybody learns like this, but that doesn’t make it wrong. In my opinion, the only real mistake is to stop trying – every other mistake just fills in another line on the roadmap of our learning journey.

One of my most hated mantras is: ‘Perfect practice makes perfect’. Not because I don’t agree with the theory behind it (that there is no point in practicing the wrong thing and expecting to improve) but because it leaves no room for mistakes. We shouldn’t be so limited by our desire to do something ‘right’ that we become afraid to do it wrong. We should never feel embarrassed, ashamed or stupid for trying, even if we fall flat on our faces. Nor should we ever feel constrained by what one person determines to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

If the fear of making mistakes is greater than the desire to learn, then learning becomes impossible.

I use the same theory when I train my horses – as long as they are trying and making mistakes, I know we are moving in the right direction, even if that direction veers off-course at times. I believe that the worst training mistake is to punish a horse for making a mistake. If the horse makes a mistake, that tells me he is at least trying. He might be trying the wrong thing, he might have the wrong answer, he might simply be trying to get out of working, but he is still trying. I want my horses to feel they can try new things, and not be afraid of making mistakes. I would go as far as saying that I want my horses to make mistakes. Because it is only through trying the wrong things, that they will find the right thing.

That doesn’t mean we should become complacent in striving to improve. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of making the same mistakes over and over again, believing that it is just part of the process. Mistakes are inevitable, but making the same mistake every time means that you are not learning anything new. That’s the time to ask yourself why you are not progressing. Is it because you don’t understand what you are supposed to be doing? Perhaps what you think you are doing doesn’t correlate with what you are actually doing? Maybe you are not physically able to do it yet. Maybe your motivation for doing it is lacking or you are not trying your hardest. Maybe emotions like fear and self-doubt are taking control. Perhaps the environment you are in is not helping you to learn. Maybe you simply don’t want to do it and that’s ok too.

This is where it pays to be analytical – take the time to figure out why it is not working, break it down into smaller steps, go back to basics, ask your instructor to explain it in a different way, try an alternative technique, change your learning environment, rebuild your confidence, take a break… If you can’t find a way to get it right, at least find a way to start making different mistakes and get yourself back on the path to learning.

Photo courtesy of Matt Pratt via Flickr.


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