Really screwing up can be a good thing. Here's why.
So you’ve royally screwed up. I’m not talking about forgetting how to pronounce someone’s name or being a couple minutes late to a meeting. That’s just regular messing up. Royally screwing up is when you fail, nice and hard. You made a leap thinking it would pay off, and you belly flopped. You fell face first, and you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.
I’ve done this a lot in my life. Sometimes it’s because I’ve made some big decision that totally backfires. Other times I commit a lot of little mess-ups that eventually snowball into a royal screw up, and suddenly I’m questioning every decision I’ve made for the last few weeks. Other times it’s a single situation that throws months or years of me thinking about myself a certain way totally into question. Whatever the context, I think royal screw ups are secretly wonderful. Even though they’re humiliating and embarrassing and unpleasant to experience at the time, I’ve come to realize that they’re one of the best things that can happen to us.
he truth is that any successful person I’ve ever known has had to mess up and struggle before they got to where they needed to be, and even then they’re not done messing up and struggling. We need to royally screw up in order to learn from our mistakes and become stronger. We need to falter so we know which direction we need to head in. So here are the ways I’ve figured out that really falling on your face can help you out in the long run.
Royally screwing up helps you figure out what you want really fast.
It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, and I was in study abroad program with a bunch of my classmates. Since we were studying film, we were put into Director/Director of Photography teams of two. The Directors had to write and direct a short film, and the Directors of Photography had to shoot it. I was a Director and my friend was the Director of Photography. At the time I was caught in a creative loop where I was making the same kind of movie over and over again. I also didn’t have confidence in my ideas, and would literally take any suggestions anyone gave to me about the script. The result was a kind of boring, confusing short drama that was thematically all over the place.
We screened it at a small festival with all of my classmate’s movies, and I was mortified. Everyone else’s film seemed so much better than mine. Mine was a directionless mess. To this day I never show it to anyone. Initially I felt like such a failure. I thought that maybe I was a bad storyteller, and not cut out for my program. But then I realized the real reason that my classmate’s films were better than mine was that they were making stories that were truly their own. They weren’t trying to be “cool” or “edgy,” they were just telling the stories they wanted to tell, and learning the curriculum.
When I started to think about my own work that way, I realized I enjoyed comedy and was much better at writing it than drama. I started to write more honest scripts and develop ideas that I would actually want to watch. Two years later, I wrote and directed my senior thesis, which was an action comedy. Because of royally screwing up my summer film, I was able to find my voice in comedy. I realize now that I might have missed this important lesson about myself if I hadn’t screwed up so badly.
Screwing up teaches you to be aware of your emotional patterns
It was my junior year of college, and was back at my apartment, crying to my boyfriend because my internship was stressful and I was having a hard time there. I finished off my cry-fest by saying, “If it gets any worse, I’m just going to quit after next week.” He then stopped me and said, “You know you’ve been saying you’re going to quit ‘after next week’ since October, right?” It was March. I couldn’t believe it. I had been thinking I just needed to stick it out for another week for months, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I had royally screwed up by failing to recognize my emotional patterns, and failing to take my own feelings seriously. Even though I was crying and on the brink of quitting every week, I wasn’t recognizing what a bad sign it was that I always felt that way. Once I was made aware of it I realized that it would probably serve me better to move on. And it did.
Screwing up forces you learn from your mistakes.
It was my senior year of college and I was at my dream internship. I loved everything about it, and really enjoyed being there. But I felt like my grades were slipping because of all the time I was spending at my internship, particularly in my senior thesis class. We had to compete with our classmates for spots, and not everyone would get one. I decided to quit the internship I loved to focus on my thesis. When I told my internship coordinator my plans, she did not take it well. She was furious, and my last two weeks of the internship were very uncomfortable. Since I really did love the internship, about 6 months later I wrote her asking if I could come back and finish out my time there. I told her how much I regretted leaving, and how much I wish I had handled it better. She told me that I was not welcome back because I had left early the first time around, end of discussion. That was about a year and half ago.
To this day, I regret quitting. Now that I’m more mature I realize that I could have made the internship work while still keeping my academics in check if I had hustled a little harder. By acting rashly, I burned a bridge straight to the ground, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to rebuild it. But now I’ve learned to never do that again. I now know that my number one priority for every opportunity is to keep the bridge intact, no matter what. And if I find myself still having to leave anyway, I will make sure that it’s on the best terms possible.
Screwing up means you’re taking risks and trying.
Last year I stopped working full time to start working freelance. At the time it seemed like it would be a better fit for my life. But as the year went on I began to realize that I’m actually someone who really needs stability and a steady schedule. As much as I love my adventures in freelancing, I now know I need a steady home and a team. That means that I’m back on the job hunt, and am trying to get back into full time work. At first I felt bad about giving up on freelancing, since I had made such a point of leaving full time work. Even though I knew I wanted to go back to full time work, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was essentially wasting a year if I tried to go back to it.
But then I realized it wasn’t a wasted year, because I had learned that freelancing didn’t suit me. If I hadn’t tried it, it would always be something I would wonder about and idealize. It took me a long time to realize this, but failing means you took a risk, and risks are a step in the right direction. It’s easy to look at big scary leaps of faith and just think “nah.” Risks are intimidating, and well, risky. It’s much easier to take the safer route and ignore any uncertain decisions that may come your way. But the thing about risks is that if you don’t take them, they turn into regrets. And choosing to not take risks is a decision in itself. Either way you’re going to have to choose forks in your path. Royally screwing up just means that you tried. And taking risks and trying is going to better your life much more in the long run than never trying at all.
Screwing up makes you less afraid of, well, screwing up
The biggest lesson I’ve gotten from my royal screw ups is that once you royally screw up a few times, it helps take the sting out of failing. When the worst thing you can imagine screwing up happens, then it happened. You don’t have to worry about it anymore since the threat of it happening is gone. And once you’ve fallen on your face a few times, it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. You’re more likely to take more risks, and therefore more likely to reach success. And when you do fail, you get stronger, and you learn how to learn and pick yourself up. Now when I mess up, I just suck it up and own up to my mistakes. I think about what I did wrong, how I could have handled it better, and move on.
So next time that you royally screw up, embrace it. Look for the lesson, and commit it to memory. Try to see the times that you’re having trouble as learning opportunities. View them as optimistic points in your life, because you know there is nowhere to go but up. Even when you’re in the most cringeworthy, awful, embarrassing parts of royally screwing up, and want to do nothing more than take it all back, don’t. Remember that you need to royally screw up—it’s essential to your success.
[Image via Frances Ha trailer, Youtube]