James Clear writes about using behavioral science to master your habits and improve your health. His free guide, Transform Your Habits, has been downloaded more than 80,000 times. This post originally appeared on his blog.
As a rule, we are incredibly hard on ourselves when it comes to making big decisions in life.
- If our first five relationships end with a break up, we think we’re destined to be alone forever.
- If we go to school, get a degree, and spend years training for a job that we end up hating, we feel like a failure for not having it all figured out.
- If we have a dream of writing a book or starting a non-profit or creating something of value and we stumble on the first try, we say that we’re not cut out for this.
In cases like these, when we are attempting to do something that is complex and multi-faceted, I believe that being wrong is actually a sign that you’re doing something right.
First choice vs. Optimal choice
For some reason, we often expect our first choice to be the optimal choice. However, it’s actually quite normal for your first attempt to be incorrect or wrong. This is especially true of the major decisions that we make in life.
- Finding the right person to marry. Think of the first person you dated. Would this person have been the best choice for your life partner? Go even further back and imagine the first person you had a crush on. Finding a great partner is complicated and expecting yourself to get it right on the first try is unreasonable. It’s rare that the first one would be the one.
- Choosing your career. What is the likelihood that your 22-year-old self could optimally choose the career that is best for you at 40 years old? Or 30 years old? Or even 25 years old? Consider how much you have learned about yourself since that time. There is a lot of change and growth that happens during life. There is no reason to believe that your life’s work should be easily determined when you graduate.
- Starting a business. It is unlikely that your first business idea will be your best one. It probably won’t even be a good one. This is the reality of entrepreneurship. (My first business idea lost $1,400. #winning)
When it comes to complex issues like determining the values you want in a partner or selecting the path of your career, your first attempt will rarely lead to the optimal solution.
5 lessons on being wrong
Being wrong isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. I have made many mistakes and I have discovered five major lessons from my experiences.
1. Choices that seem poor in hindsight are an indication of growth, not self-worth or intelligence
When you look back on your choices from a year ago, you should always hope to find a few decisions that seem stupid now because that means you are growing.
If you only live in the safety zone where you know you can’t mess up, then you’ll never unleash your true potential. If you know enough about something to make the optimal decision on the first try, then you’re not challenging yourself.
2. Given that your first choice is likely to be wrong, the best thing you can do is get started
The faster you learn from being wrong, the sooner you can discover what is right. For complex situations like relationships or entrepreneurship, you literally have to start before you feel ready because it’s not possible for anyone to be truly ready.
The best way to learn is to start practicing.1
3. Break down topics that are too big to master into smaller tasks that can be mastered
I can’t look at any business and tell you what to do. Entrepreneurship is too big of a topic. But, I can look at any website and tell you how to optimize it for building an email list because that topic is small enough for me to develop some level of expertise. If you want to get better at making accurate first choices, then play in a smaller arena.
As Neils Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, famously said, “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
4. The time to trust your gut is when you have the knowledge or experience to back it up
You can trust yourself to make sharp decisions in areas where you already have proven expertise. For everything else, the only way to discover what works is to adopt a philosophy of experimentation.
5. The fact that failure will happen is not an excuse for expecting to fail
There is no reason to be depressed or give up simply because you will make a few wrong choices. Even more crucial, you must try your best every time because it is the effort and the practice that drives the learning process. They are essential, even if you fail.
Realize that no single choice is destined to fail, but that occasional failure is the cost you have to pay if you want to be right. Expect to win and play like it from the outset.
Your first choice is rarely the optimal choice. Make it now, stop judging yourself, and start growing.
Read next: You don’t get what you don’t ask for
- I believe that this is also one of the reasons why history repeats itself. There are many situations that simply have to be experienced to be understood. Even if you read the opinion of every expert in a field, the only way to make progress in your own life is to experiment. Of course, not all experiments go to plan and, as a result, the same mistakes are made over and over again as each person goes through the process of finding their own way.