You can’t achieve perfection. You won’t achieve perfection.
You can’t even fool the rest of the world into thinking you have. Getting somewhere, getting anywhere in life is about going through a process of experimenting, making mistakes, learning and improving.
If you try to get around that process, the only thing that happens is you become completely wound up in yourself and you fail to improve your work, your product, or your creative skills.
I think I’ve learned, over the last 15 years, that success in life isn’t best measured by what you achieve. It’s measured by what you overcome. For me, that has meant overcoming the sheer weight of my own mistakes.
If you try and pretend that you don’t make mistakes, you lose the chance to do remarkable things. You’ll spend your time doing safe things. You can celebrate your mistakes. Just don’t glorify them — look on them as chips that can be cashed in for future gains.
I think there are some mistakes that we all have to make on our own. There is no tutorial level for the raw reality of being alive. Even reading this, you’ll make every single one of these mistakes, and learn to live with them, and that’s okay too.
1. Trusting the wrong people.
When you’re starting out, you want to be a trusting person. Start out optimistic, open minded and free. Don’t be too quick to judge, because you’ll be basing that judgement off zero data.
By trusting everyone, you’re going to end up trusting the wrong people. This just happens, because the world is full of shitty types who want to screw you over and take everything you’ve got.
This is going to teach you who is actually worth trusting in the future. It will give you the information you need to make informed and valuable choices around who is worth trusting and who is not worth your time. Trust the wrong people because it’s the only way to end up trusting the right ones.
2. Fucking up your finances.
Everyone should make at least one bad financial decision. This is something I truly believe. There’s just something about that moment of realisation, when it hits you that you’ve made a truly terrible mistake with your money that can sober you up for life.
My mistake? Debt. In my 20s, I racked up over $20,000 worth of credit card debt, racked up on drugs, alcohol, failed relationships and buying crap I didn’t need. That’s something you can’t just shrug off, or think away with positive thoughts. That’s something that wakes you up sweating and panicking.
3. Choosing an unhealthy career path.
I love it when people tell me they started out on a career, founded a company, designed something and then quit when they realised it wasn’t for them. How brave is that? To be able to admit that you walked the wrong path and take the time to switch?
I think the only way to know what you really want to do is to try a whole bunch of things and learn what it feels like when you’re doing the right one. That gives you the knowledge you need to make a better choice.
Choosing an unhealthy career path sucks, and it can feel like a huge set back. I’ve done it enough times to know that when you’re right in the middle of it you will feel like a failure. Don’t look on it as a waste of time. Trust me, it’s not.
4. Making selfish decisions.
When you’re young, you’re selfish. This isn’t an indictment of millennials, I am one. The fact is, we are taught empathy throughout our formative years, but it’s not a skill that can be learned in the abstract. Empathy is something that can only be picked up with hands on experience.
And that means you’re going to make selfish decisions. Maybe you’ll screw over your friends. Choose money over your family. Break up with a person who trusted you, in the worst possible way. I’ve done all of that.
Seeing the impact of those selfish choices breaks you. In little ways, in big ways. It changes the way you see other people. If you’re lucky, it stops you from being able to pretend that everyone else in the world is a non-player-character in a game.
5. Taking the easy way out.
It’s so hard not to do this. It’s so hard not to take the easy way out, when you know how much simpler it will make your life. And when you haven’t been burned, it’s hard to see a reason why you shouldn’t try to shift the blame, do a half-assed job.
Do it once, and you should learn something though. Taking the easy way out will always come back and bite you. You will always regret it. The quality will suffer, your reputation will suffer, and your own experience of it all will be terrible.
“Don’t do anything by half. If you love someone, love them with all your soul. When you go to work, work your ass off. When you hate someone, hate them until it hurts.” — Henry Rollins
6. Working too damn hard and paying the price.
I see this from would-be creatives and artists and writers every day. They talk about hustling 18 hours a day. They tell you they’ve worked every weekend, every night. They buy into the fallacy that letting your work rule every waking moment is the only way to be successful.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“It’s all part of the hustle.”
“You can startup or rest, you can’t do both.”
This is all a complete fabrication. It’s been propagated by the insane work schedules of a small percentage of billionaire founders and visionary creatives who were able to function on a fraction of sleep every night.
They are the exception. You are the rule. If you choose to work too hard once, and you burn out, that’s an awesome opportunity to learn. But you have to learn from it. You have to learn that trying to maintain that level of skewed work-life balance is rarely going to work from you.
I’ve never been ashamed to admit that I’ve made mistakes. One of the guiding forces in my life has been my ability to fuck up completely, get back on my feet and keep on swinging.
Did I shut down a creative services agency, due to having zero idea about how to run a business? Absolutely. Did I get completely ripped off by a former business partner and end up massively in debt? I won’t deny it.
Did I lose a record deal and get dropped by my label? Sure.
Did I go into business with a convicted felon? Unfortunately, it’s true.
Did I wipe 3 hard-drives containing every piece of music I’d ever made? Yeah.
Did I drop out of law school and fail to accomplish anything more meaningful than binge watching TV for seven months? That checks out.
Did I self sabotage my relationship as soon as I got engaged? Yeah, that too.
Did I spend 10 years as an alcoholic? 100%.
The unifying theme behind every mistake I’ve made, is that no matter how long it took, I learned somehing. I took something home. I gained valuable information about myself, my challenges and my path.
And I’m not too proud to own every single one of those mistakes and those fuckups. If you lose respect for me reading them, frankly — that’s on you. It ain’t on me.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.