Permission to Screw Up: Get-Better Goals
Written by Jim Knight.

How can you motivate yourself to approach new responsibilities with confidence and energy?  The answer is simple, though perhaps a little surprising: give yourself permission to screw up.  —Heidi Grant Halvorson

I’ve been reading a great e-book by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, published by Harvard Business Review Press.  The book is a short, clear summary of some important big ideas about personal growth (goals, feedback, realistic optimism, and grit) and Halvorson provides numerous links back to studies to support her claims.  Anyone interested in personal growth, and in particular anyone who is a coach, will find the book well worth the money and time.

One of Halvorson’s big ideas is that to grow we need to focus on getubg better (get-better goals) not being good (be-good goals).  She puts it this way:

Embracing the fact that you can change will allow you to make better choices and reach your fullest potential.  People whose goals are about getting better, rather than being good, take difficulty in stride and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

People, according to Halvorson, approach any task with one of two types of goals:  be-good goals, where people want to demonstrate their mastery of something, and get-better goals, where people simply want to improve the way they do something.

About both types of goals, Halvorson writes:

The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult.  We quickly start feeling that we don’t actually know what we are doing, that we lack ability, and this creates a lot of anxiety. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with performance quite like anxiety does; it is the productivity killer.

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bulletproof.  When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we might make mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

This seems like great advice for all of us, but I think it is especially meaningful for teachers.  When we try out a new teaching practice, we can mess ourselves up if we feel we have to use a graphic organizer or learning structure perfectly the very first time.  A be-good goal, in other words, can increase our anxiety and in fact decrease our interest in trying anything new.

On the other hand, if we approach new practices with a get-better goal, we reduce our anxiety and make each new attempt a learning opportunity.  The first time trying anything in the classroom, in my experience, runs the risk of falling apart.  When we give ourselves “permission to screw up,” we reduce our anxiety and increase our interest in and ability to improve.



  1. Angela Redden

    Having just been evaluated this week, I can really relate to this. I am generally a person who allows herself to screw up; however, when it comes time to be observed by an administrator, it seems there is no room for screwing up. The evaluation model used in my state seems to expect teachers to be perfect. I wish it took in to account that to be perfect, a teacher must first screw up.

  2. Jim Knight

    I think you’re exactly right Angela. I think the best kind of evaluation simply is a part of people trying to be better at what they do.

  3. Jane Kise

    Thank you for sharing this, Jim.

    Too often we’re rushed as coaches, aren’t we? I love spending a day with a secondary teacher, where we try a strategy, adjust, and try again. It “norms” the reality that we aren’t expecting perfection the first time.

  4. Shira Leibowitz

    What wise advise for student goals as well as for teacher goals! I’m getting better at “get better goals” rather than “be good goals” for our teachers, our educational leadership team, and myself. I wonder ways of deliberately giving a similar message to our students; empowering them to aspire and stretch themselves to get better, rather than doing what is necessary to “be good” or in student terms, earn good grades.

  5. Jim Knight

    @ Jane–great point. I think you’re right about “norms.” Growth starts with a culture that is committed to continuous improvement. @ Shira, great point! I totally agree… and again it goes back to culture, I think… If a school is committed to growth, that’s manifested in everyone’s growth–teacher, student, principal, cafeteria staff, everyone…

  6. Daniel T. Pollitt

    Excellent advice for teachers–and students! My middle schoolers and I are working on goal-setting this quarter, and it’s challenging. We are learning about short-term and long-term goals, academic and non-academic goals. First, there’s a delicate balance between making a goal too easy or too hard. If it’s too easy, it may not be worth your time or effort to even write it down. If it’s too hard, maybe you need to reevaluate what goal you hope to accomplish. And second, goal-setting can be overwhelming! I like how Halvorson distinguishes between be-good and get-better goals; it lets myself and my students know that a goal isn’t the end-all be-all of a task or performance. It is, instead, a way to track and measure your progress. Good stuff, thanks Jim.


  7. Jim Knight

    Great to hear from you Dan. I wrote a bit about authentic learning in my new book, and I wrote that authentic learning is interesting, relevant, and meaningful. I wonder if those criteria can be applied by students as they strive to get to the sweet spot for learning.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *