How I'm Finally Getting Over My Fear of Making Mistakes

A mistake can become one of two choices: Ugly, murky things that dampen my spirit, or beautiful light-giving encounters that open me up to a wider sea of possibilities.
Publish date:
June 7, 2013
learning, mistakes, the piano

I’ve never discovered why my parents decided to take me to piano lessons. Practically speaking they had neither the time nor the money for such a luxury. They were just starting out, bills were a priority, and investing in a four-year-old learning an instrument that she may later abandon was a risk. However in the fashion of my parents, they made the seemingly financially impossible a reality. Every week my father would travel with me into central London and stand and peer at the back of the class while I learnt to communicate in a language that’s never failed me – music.

It turned out my precociousness, fearlessness, and grit were a decent enough combination for learning an instrument. I played the piano and I played it well. I played so loudly family members would give me headphones as a birthday present. I played in church, school, and at piano recitals where people would ask my teacher about the brown girl with the braids who stomped up to the piano, played with fury and then disappeared.

What’s interesting is that the instrument that gave me such liberty and joy was the first place where I felt restriction and sadness.

I remember playing during a school play, and making a mistake. No one else could tell I made a mistake (apart from my father perhaps) but I could tell. It bothered me for days. I couldn’t communicate how I felt to anyone because I was ashamed I’d made the mistake in the first place. I felt extremely guilty I’d let everyone down. For a ten-year-old who usually had nothing but the Spice Girls and Hanson on her mind, this was a massive deal.

The piano is where I learnt to fear mistakes. There I encountered a triad of corrosive emotions that became my personal axis of destruction – fear, guilt and shame. If I encountered one, the others would soon follow.

Fast forward to my twenties, and what’s among my biggest fears, still? Making mistakes.

I avoided making mistakes. Despite all my talk of living a life characterized by risk and courage, if something looked like it could potentially be married to failure, I’d back away. I incorrectly believed that if I fastidiously monitored all my decisions and constantly weighed up all the options, I’d always be better off. My life would be void of obvious mistakes, I’d be free!

I became the worst type of introspective over-thinker, the type who over thinks about their over-thinking. My life became characterized by an avoidance that was disempowering and crippling. I believed that eliminating the possibility of mistakes from the equation meant I’d be happier, instead it meant I was stagnant, and learning nothing.

Last year I got a callback to play Nala in the Lion King in London. The first time I'd auditioned I didn't execute the score at the required standard. Instead of trying harder in my next audition and getting the necessary vocal coaching, I turned down what could have been an incredible opportunity. All because I was too terrified of making another mistake during my audition.

Obviously, my decision to avoid making mistakes was the biggest mistake.

I was trying to inoculate myself against life, which was foolish. I cannot protect myself from life, it is so much bigger than me. Being willing to make mistakes, being loving, staying hopeful, is an expensive way to live with no guarantees, but the alternative, being bound by fear, indifference and hopelessness, carries a far greater price.

I didn’t have a magical encounter that suddenly rid me of my fear of mistakes. The change was thrust upon me.

Recently I packed up my life in a suitcase and headed to Brooklyn. Before I left London I had negotiated some things into the equation of possibility. The fact that it would be markedly different from home and that moving beyond my comfort zone would require me to pull from parts of my character that I wasn’t sure I had. What I didn’t expect is that as beautiful as this journey has been and will continue to be, I would make mistakes all the time.

Whether it’s the fact that I’m incapable of swiping my metro card correctly. Or that if you see me walking that probably means I’m lost. Spending hundreds of dollars on something that could be purchased for half the price two miles down the road. Discovering that there are some places where you don’t have to tip and if you do tip no one will correct you. Walking in sketchy areas at an absurdly late hour and praying to God that if he spares you a violent death you’ll stop going on Twitter during church.

My life is a playground littered with mistakes and awkward encounters.

In this playground I’ve discovered that mistakes can be two things. Ugly, murky things that dampen my spirit, or beautiful light-giving encounters that open me up to a wider sea of possibilities. It turns out that with each mistake, I’ve learnt a lesson far more helpful than anything the things I get right teach me.

Do I revel in my mistakes? Of course not. But I’m expanding and growing. It’s transforming my attitude and approach to life and it’s freeing me.

The benefit of having a studio in my apartment is that I cannot avoid the piano. It's always there, and of late I've dared to do things I never would, like learning and playing songs on the spot in front of strangers.

Before my fear of playing the wrong chord would have crippled me, but now I play anyway, and when I get it wrong? I keep on going.