The Delicate Art of Screwing Up

twitter-fail-whale-painting1 by IsaacMao, on Flickr

Screwing-up is hard to do well, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to get magnificently wrong.

If you’re a rookie, your screw ups will be making one hell of a mess; spraying debris all over the place and making you feel like something you might scrape off the bottom of your shoe.  And if you haven’t learned the delicate art of screwing up, you might actually believe that it’s reflective of your capability or even who you are.  I know, crazy, right?

So let’s say you’ve just screwed up in a major way.  Maybe a project’s exploded at work leaving a tattered, smoking ruin where there was supposed to be something shiny, glorious and perhaps even profitable.  Maybe a personal project that’s meant a lot to you has given its last gasp of life having never really lived.  Maybe you’ve just asked the rather plump bosses wife when she’s due. Maybe you’ve let slip a big secret that your friend entrusted to you and you alone on pain of death, or perhaps you’ve run over your mothers’ cat.

Whatever the screw up, here’s just a little piece of what your brain’s getting busy with:

  • At the unexpected turn of events the levels of dopamine in the brain (the neurotransmitter that helps control the brains’ reward and pleasure centres ) will drop sharply.  It’s this drop of dopamine that hurts, and studies have shown that a sharp drop of dopamine can equate to physical pain.
  • With the unwanted and unfavourable change in your environment your amygdale kicks in, giving you a strong emotional response that makes you want to get the hell outa there.  The amydale is one of the oldest centres of the brain, responsible for providing you with a strong emotional signal to either go towards something (that nice, tasty berry on that bush) or away from something (that snarling sabre-toothed tiger).
  • The dip in dopamine and increase of activity in your amygdale reduces the amount of energy available to your pre-frontal cortex, which is where you do your conscious thinking.   With the pre-frontal cortex power flickering on and off it’s tough to think things through in a focused and deliberate way.  You just can’t think clearly.
  • If you’ve been in a similar situation before (if this is your first screw up then make sure you apply for your medal) your brain will look for a way to navigate the situation most effectively.  It will look for a pre-stored pattern of behaviour that it can trigger that will do one or more of these things:

    a. Keep you safe rather than run the risk of making things worse or being blamed.  The logic here is that your safety – which includes your physical safety, safety of your identity, your reputation and your emotional safety – needs to be established as soon as possible.

    b. Increase your control over the whole situation by looking for individual details that can be controlled, influenced or changed.  The logic here is that by increasing the level of control you have over your environment, the less chance there is for something bad or unexpected to happen again.

    c. Make you right rather than being the one who screwed up.  The logic your brain employs is aimed at separating you from the failure (a “bad thing”) so that you can be in the right (a “good thing”), so it seeks out ways to support that positioning. Maybe you didn’t want it enough, maybe you didn’t give it your all, maybe it was Larry’s fault or maybe the world conspired against you.

Holy mother of a nutcracker.

That activity in your brain happens in just a handful of seconds, and you can see how – if you’re not adept in the art of screwing up – you can get into a downward spiral of thinking that just takes you deeper and deeper into the mire.

With the change in your brain chemistry and lack of pre-frontal cortex activity, it’s easy for you to reach the conclusion that you’re a bit shit; that you’re not up to the job; that you’re not as good as you should be. That logic achieves a couple of things.  It provides you with a hypothesis that makes you right rather than happy, and it makes it more likely that you don’t try next time in case you screw-up again.

But none of this is necessary.

To become a master in the delicate art of screwing up (or a DASU Master, if you care to adopt the official moniker), here’s what you need to do:

1. Pause.
The moments after a screw-up happens are pivotal.  If you let your brain do what it wants it’ll take you into that downward spiral, so it’s important to pause for just a second to bring yourself up and out of how your brain might normally handle things on your behalf.  Here’s one way to do that.

Picture yourself up in the projection booth of a movie theatre, with whatever went wrong playing out on the screen down below you. From your vantage point right at the back of the theatre you can see the events playing out moment by moment, just as they have done, and you can even watch the audience sitting down there taking it all in. There you are on the screen, doing things exactly as you have done. You’re watching yourself in the moments before and during the screw-up, and you can even watch yourself in the aftermath behaving as you might normally behave.

This simple exercise creates a space between you and the immediate environment, a space that affords you the brilliant opportunity to notice exactly what’s going on.

2. Notice.
Your brain may well be scrambling for a way through, but that doesn’t need to dictate your experience. With space to notice what’s happening you can gently observe what feels shitty without that shitty feeling dictating your behaviour or even your next thought.

This is the same as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (to bring in a little quantum mechanics), which states (in a nutshell) that you can’t observe something without changing it.

The simple, gentle and non-judgememtal act of noticing your thinking and even naming what’s happening can’t happen without introducing something new to the equation. So notice what feels crappy and observe a shitty thought, then say “Ah yeah, that crappy feeling will be the drop of dopamine in my brain” or “Okay, I get it, my brain’s just trying to keep me safe here“.

3. Choose.
The extra quality of thought that’s introduced by observing and identifying a crappy thought is so important that I’m going to use all caps. I make no apology for yelling. YOU GET TO CHOOSE.

All that shitty stuff may be running around in your noggin, but by noticing it you get to choose what you do next. You get to make a choice about how you want to experience what’s happening; whether you want your brain to do what it wants or whether you want to have a better experience.  And you can slap me 11 ways ’til Sunday if that’s not pretty darn brilliant.

I’d never tell you that you shouldn’t feel crappy if something goes wrong or you royally screw-up.  It’s your right to feel bad, and sometimes I’d even say that it’s important or needed.

But that doesn’t preclude your ability to be at your best at the same time.

Being in a situation that you’d rather not be in does not mean that you can’t find something funny in it; it doesn’t mean that you can’t offer a helping hand to someone else; it doesn’t mean that you can’t apply your strengths and talents; and it doesn’t mean that you can’t use it as a great opportunity to honour what matters to you.

Crap times and good times can co-exist; it just needs you to choose.



  1. Steve, I think you detail both the process and the mastering of the art of screwing up in a wonderful way. I think I will start quoting you each time I hear someone talking bout their mistakes.
    Thank you for such a wonderful article.

    • Steve Errey says:

      We all screw up, so I thought it was about time we got better at it. There’s a whole book in here Alejandro but I’m glad it gave you the eseentials!

      • I’m still diving into your content, but I must say you really have something amazing going on here! Not everyone gets me commenting around. 🙂

        • Steve Errey says:

          Glad you made an exception for me! I don’t want to write the same old stuff as everybody else – I really want every article to offer something valuable, insightful and useful – everything here should contribute towards putting your dent in the universe…

  2. Hi Steve

    For me … it’s all in the details … and I really like the details of how the brain works in this kind of crisis situation. And, yes, almost any experience can be good or bad depending on our attitude and response. Crap happens to all of us and I’ve tried for a long time to avoid asking “why me” and ask “what can I learn from this”. The words we choose feed into whether it’s positive or negative as well … so reprogramming myself to use positive phrases (glad I could help) rather than negative ones (no problem) has made a difference too.

    • Steve Errey says:

      That “Why me” thinking leads to “I deserve better”, and that’s a nasty place to spend time in. I really like your shift to “glad I could help” too – I’ve seem to have been using “you’re welcome” a lot more recently because it just seemed to fit better, so thanks for pointing out a distinction I wasn’t really aware of!


  1. […] emotions can be fired as a fear response aimed to simply keep you safely away from risk and the drama of screwing up, other times your emotions can be fired when your behaviour is flying in the face of your values […]

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