Some mistakes are catastrophes, doing deep, lasting damage. Others are just missteps, bruising our egos a bit but teaching us loads in the process.

It’s often hard to tell the difference, though.

When we’re evaluating a potential course of action, fear often magnifies risk. To our fear-addled brains, potential minor difficulties can feel like looming disasters.

Being afraid of making an irreversible mistake can paralyze us, causing us to miss out on great opportunities that carry relatively small degrees of real risk.

To counteract this tendency, we can keep a simple rule in mind:

In situations where the biggest risk is temporary embarrassment and even the worst-case scenario involves significant personal or professional growth, mistakes are not to be feared.

Examples include making a well-considered career change, taking up a challenging new hobby, or even starting a blog.

The dangers of blogging in public

Of the 100+ posts on this site, only a few have generated vehement disagreement.

The most controversial by far has been the fifth post I ever wrote, What Do We Owe Musicians?, in which I argued (somewhat clumsily) that we musicians do our best work when we view performing as an act of gift-giving.

The post got a few Facebook shares and sparked some dialogue. In one discussion, a couple musicians who are far more accomplished than I (including a member of a major symphony orchestra) made it pretty clear that they saw things differently.

I was embarrassed, and I felt like I’d screwed up in a lasting way. In reality, my ego was just a bit bruised from being taken to task (and bruised egos heal pretty quickly). The whole thing blew over almost immediately. Embarrassment isn’t fatal, and the personal growth I’ve experienced from writing this blog dwarfs the discomfort I’ve experienced from a half-dozen incidents like this. It’s not even close.

Three questions to ask when you’re afraid of making a mistake

When you’re worried a tempting opportunity might turn out to be a big mistake, here are three questions to ask yourself:

  • What skills and experiences will I gain from this opportunity if everything turns out great? What about if everything goes horribly wrong?
  • If this turns out to be a disaster, will I be better or worse off than I am right now? If worse, how long will it take me to get back to where I am?
  • What kind of damage am I risking, really, and how long will it last? Am I just afraid of a little temporary embarrassment?

Questions like these help us cut through our fear and see things as they are. We’ll always make mistakes, but we can choose to make better ones.