Why You Should Make More Intentional Mistakes

Why You Should Make More Intentional MistakesPhoto by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

One of my favorite podcast episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show is an episode titled A Masterclass in Creative Living and Dangerous Writing. In this episode
Tim Ferriss talks to Chuck Palahniuk, the award-winning author of Fight Club.

I like this episode because it features Chuck Palahniuk and I like Chuck Palahniuk (and he has a lot of good writing advice to offer). But I especially like this episode because, after 15 minutes or so, Chuck Palahniuk declares something I find very interesting:

“I love making intentional mistakes.”

Giving the audience a win

We’ve often been old to avoid mistakes at all costs. So why would you deliberately want to make a mistake? This advice might feel a bit counterintuitive but, as Chuck Palahniuk explains, there are several ways in which you can use intentional mistakes to your advantage — both in writing and in real life.

In the end, it all comes down to giving the audience a win.

Write characters that allow the audience to feel smart

The first thing that Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Gone with the Wind, says is, “War, war, war. All this talk of war is spoiling all the barbecues. There is not going to be a war.”

Of course, the audience knows that there is going to be a war. But as Chuck Palahniuk explains, this is a very effective use of an intentional mistake.

“As soon as she says there is not going to be a war, we are on board. We are thinking, “You poor, privileged little thing. There is going to be a war and it is going to completely kick your ass, and it is going to destroy your little world.” But because she said the wrong thing, she makes the audience smarter and she makes the audience sympathetic with her.

This is why minimalism is such an effective writing strategy. By not giving everything away, you allow the readers to figure things out for themselves. You allow the readers to feel good about themselves.

And it’s especially effective in those situations where the reader knows more than the narrator does. It forces the reader to carry the emotion before the narrator is allowed the emotion, which in turn encourages the reader to really root for the narrator:

“So, when you have a character who’s making an ongoing mistake, you keep the audience really engaged because the audience feels superior, doesn’t resent the character, and wants to see the character come to enlightenment.”

But it’s not only fictional characters that can benefit from making intentional mistakes, according to Chuck Palahniuk. This principle, the fact that people feel sympathy for characters that allow them to feel good about themselves, can also be applied in real life.

Why you should look stupid more often

I still remember lying about having read One Hundred Years of Solitude at a literary party. When someone assumed I’d read it, I simply went along with it. The rest of the conversation fell flat because I had nothing meaningful to contribute, and I was too embarrassed to correct my mistake.

According to a Sky Arts poll, I’m not the only one who lied about having read a certain book. Many people admit to having pretended to read certain books in order to appear more cultured and intellectual (the books most lied about are To Kill A Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Odyssey, and 1984).

We often try to avoid losing face in public. We’re too embarrassed to admit that we’ve never read Tolstoy or that we don’t know why Madame Bovary made such a cultural impact. But it might actually work in our favor to look stupid from time to time.

Making mistakes on purpose

In the podcast episode, Chuck Palahniuk states that he’s fine with looking stupid and even makes mistakes on purpose. When talking to people, he mixes up different authors, and he mispronounces book titles.

“It validates their education. The way that game shows do. When you’re sitting and you’re yelling at Jeopardy, and you get it right and they get it wrong, you feel so pompous.”

He makes mistakes in real life for the same reason he intentionally lets his characters make mistakes: It allows people to feel superior, to feel smart.

“When you allow people to be smart like that, it’s like they’ve won a game show. They might feel a little less respectful of you. But what’s important is that you’ve made them feel really good.”

People will forget what you said but not how you made them feel

There’s a famous Maya Angelou quote that fits really well with the principle that you need to give the audience a win:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

We often assume people will like us better if we appear cultured and intellectual. If we have a lot of knowledge of things. But it might actually be the other way around.

People won’t remember all the profound and intellectual things you said at that party but what they will remember, is the way they were feeling when they were around you. And if you allowed them to feel good about themselves, chances are they want to be around you more often.

The Beautiful Mess effect

A possible explanation for the fact that we tend to like people who aren’t afraid to make mistakes is the phenomenon that psychologists describe as The Beautiful Mess effect.

According to psychological research, people often tend to feel sympathy for people who show their vulnerability. The researchers — Anna Bruk, Sabine G. Scholl, and Herbert Bless — found evidence for this effect across six different studies: If someone admits to a mistake, we don’t feel less sympathy for them. In fact, we often feel more sympathy for them.

We like seeing this openness and vulnerability in others.

Why, then, is it still so difficult to be vulnerable ourselves? That’s because we judge our own vulnerability differently. People are more likely to describe themselves as ‘weak’ or ‘inadequate’ when they make a mistake, whereas they describe others as ‘desirable’ and ‘good’ when they show their vulnerability. There’s a mismatch in the way people judge their own vulnerability and the way they judge other people’s vulnerability.

So we should try to be a bit more compassionate with ourselves, whenever we make a mistake. We can even make mistakes on purpose, as Chuck Palahniuk does.

But there is a catch: Research suggests that deliberately making mistakes is only beneficial when you’re already perceived as competent — in other situations, this strategy might backfire.

The Pratfall effect

In 1966 psychologist Elliot Anderson led an experiment in which he had students listen to a recording of four people participating in a quiz. The four people on the recordings could be divided in two groups of two:

  • The ‘smart’ candidates: these candidates got almost all the quiz questions right
  • The ‘mediocre’ candidates: these candidates got almost all the questions wrong

At some point during the quiz, the students suddenly heard a lot of noise, followed by one of the candidates saying, “Oh my goodness — I’ve spilled coffee all over my new suit.” For one group of students, it was a smart candidate who spilled coffee. For the other group of students, it was a mediocre candidate who made the mistake.

Afterward, the students were asked to rate the candidates on likability. And this is the interesting part: The students liked the smart candidate more after he embarrassed himself by making a mistake — but they liked the mediocre candidate less.

This is also known as the Pratfall effect:

People who are considered highly competent are found to be more likable when they perform an everyday blunder than those who don’t.

Making a mistake tends to humanize someone and make them more approachable, but this only works when someone is already seen as competent. This is why it’s okay for Chuck Palahniuk to make a literary mistake and why it’s okay for Jennifer Lawrence to trip on the red carpet.

But if you make a mistake in an area where you’re not competent at all, you might be perceived as just a mess instead of a beautiful mess.

The takeaway

Counterintuitive as it might seem, making a mistake can work to your advantage. In writing, flawed characters make the audience sympathetic to them. It allows the readers to feel good about themselve

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