Being afraid of mistakes makes us perform worse

Thinking Out Loud No. 39

Hi everyone,

I’m taking an online course called Ultraspeaking, which uses a series of games to help unlock our natural capacities around speaking (my framing). The tagline on their website captures it well: “Speaking is just a game. Learn to play.”

I’ve only done one live session so far, but I can already see one important area they’re training people to move beyond: the fear of making mistakes.

Imagine a training environment where there are zero meaningful consequences for not performing perfectly. You can have a go at one of Ultraspeaking’s games for free to see what this is like.

What’s interesting about a scenario like this is that despite it being obvious that nothing bad will happen if we ‘mess up’, we still respond as if messing up is a bad thing. See how your body reacts to that game even if there’s no one around while you’re playing.

These games move very quickly — too quickly for our minds to think through correct or even good answers. That means we have to trust whatever else it is inside us that actually generates answers and then say those things. What comes up is usually both surprising and good. Surprisingly good, even.

And yet, any belief that it’s bad to make a mistake causes us to try not to make mistakes. Our thinking mind involves itself in whatever that other thing is that generates answers and breaks the whole system.

So the question then becomes: how can we learn to get out of the way and let our innate capacities out to play?

One answer is Alexander Technique, but I’m not shilling that here, you can sign up over here if you’re interested.

The other answer is to get comfortable with the feeling of making mistakes. Go through the game over and over again and say absolutely nonsense — don’t even try to make sense — and pay attention to the felt sense of both anticipating making mistakes and then actually making mistakes.

Over time the physical feelings associated with that fear will lessen as you realise there is no danger. From there, slowly increase the difficulty by intending to say something sensible, and again, keep doing that until the feelings of fear subside.

The place you want to end up is to simultaneously not care about making mistakes while also intending to say something sensible. That requires trust, but it’s a trust that can be cultivated.

For now, I am choosing to lean more and more into making mistakes.

✍️ I’ve joined an online writing community

I’m happy to share that I’ve joined Foster, an online writing community centred around peer feedback. This is a commitment and gift to myself as I focus more and more on making writing a meaningful part of my life.

What strikes me is how many ‘people from the Internet’ I already know who are in Foster. It’s wonderful to see the emergence and consolidation of different communities around the ‘creator economy’ and I’m looking forward to the days when we can start to blur the lines between online and physical meet ups once again.

👨‍💼Noticing that I am ‘professionalising’

What an awful word, but still it captures something that a nicer word wouldn’t.

I left my job a little over three months ago. And it seems that part of me was hoping that I would become some kind of flâneur.

“Traditionally depicted as male, a flâneur is an ambivalent figure of urban affluence and modernity, representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of industrialized, contemporary life.” — Thanks Wikipedia

I don’t think I really want to be a flâneur — it feels too aloof for my liking — and yet the part of me that does want to be a flâneur is currently having a bit of a crisis. Certainly I want to be an acute observer of industrialised, contemporary life, but I also want to be a part of said life, and that’s where the professionalisation (urgh again) is coming in.

It turns out that doing all the things I want to do — like building a great online Alexander Technique course, writing dozens of articles on, helping to grow the Carbon Removal Centre into a force for good in the world, working with coaching clients AND being a flâneur — all of that requires a level of structure, organisation and commitment that usually comes with professional environments.

And with good reason! Doing all of those things is difficult and professional frames exist to make them easier.

What I’m sitting with for now looks like a paradox, but probably isn’t. I left my job to leave the professional frame and yet here I am building my own.

I think I need to lean into this and instead keep asking myself — assuming that professionalising isn’t a bad thing, actually, how can I do it in a way that allows me to have fun while doing it?

I’m looking forward to discovering the answer to that one. And if you have any advice please do let me know.

Thanks for reading! Until next time.