Learn from Your Mistakes

For most of us, learning from our mistakes is very difficult. The biggest reason is usually that we don’t enjoy making them. In fact, they’re upsetting. So it’s natural for us to want to forget all about our mistakes and put them behind us as quickly as possible.

But forgetting about your mistakes is itself another mistake, perhaps a bigger one. Why? Because you can often learn as much from your mistakes as from your successes – possibly even more.

If you look at the historical record, you can find a variety of mistakes that resulted in major successes. These include such iconic products as pacemakers, penicillin, Post-It notes, saccharine, and the Slinky.

Of course, there are many more mistakes that have turned out to be disasters. So it’s not like you can just blunder around and expect to be considered a genius or earn a billion dollars.

Most mistakes – whether they are decisions, plans of action, predictions, or something else – we make inadvertently. However, there can be so much value in mistakes that in certain situations it may actually prove beneficial to invite a few low-penalty mistakes in hopes of learning enough to gain more than they cost.

Let’s take a closer look at the fine art of screwing up and still generating gold:

Examine Your Mistakes in Detail

Since you’re not perfect, accept that you’re going to make some mistakes. Instead of feeling defensive and writing them off as a total loss, try reframing them as possible sources of valuable information, experience, or even something tangible.

Do it like this:

Consider Your Mistake-Making Process

Assuming you made the mistake while trying to accomplish something good, the first thing to study is how you came to make that mistake.

  • Did you operate on incorrect or incomplete information?
  • Did you base your mistaken action on an assumption that was unwarranted?
  • Did you use faulty reasoning?
  • Did you take action in a sloppy or wrong-headed way?

If you discover your mistake resulted from one of these, or some other kind of poor execution, try to be smart enough to avoid that same error in the future.

Consider Your Understanding

If you did everything right and you still produced a poor result, start looking at your understanding of the people involved and the environment in which you made your mistake.

  • Did you overestimate your ability to deliver what you hoped for?
  • Did you misjudge the abilities or motivation of the people on whom you relied?
  • Did you miscalculate the reaction of those you hoped to please?

If so, add this pearl of wisdom to your knowledge bank and proceed into the future with suitable caution.

Look for the Light

It’s also very helpful to take apart your mistake, look at the details, and evaluate the following:

  • What you did right, even if the whole event turned out to be a mistake.
  • What you did wrong, and why you did it.
  • What you can do better next time.

Taking this analytical approach helps turn your mistake into an opportunity to improve your perception, upgrade your skills, and expand your understanding of the world and the people in it.

Identify One or More Lessons

If you can get past the emotional pain that usually comes with recognizing you made a mistake, you can often apply your rational thought process to glean one or more worthwhile lessons from the disaster.

These lessons may be in the form of generalized knowledge, such as “you can’t please everyone all the time” or “you can’t always get what you want.”

But they can also be more specific, such as “So-and-so is untrustworthy” or “when I’m tired, I tend to make crummy decisions.”

Make a Few Mistakes on Purpose

You read that right.

Since mistakes can provide such valuable learning experiences, it may make sense in certain situations to leave the door open to a small mistake or two (in addition to the ones you honestly can’t avoid). If one of these extra mistakes occurs in a situation you are carefully controlling, you may get lucky and watch it turn into something as beneficial as penicillin!

One way to open the door to a few extra mistakes that may prove beneficial is to lower your standards: in hiring, in accepting new projects, in green-lighting new initiatives, in trying new processes, and so forth. You don’t want to lower them too much. But a slight adjustment of standards in favor of accepting more new opportunities may turn out for the best.

Of course, it’s important to be practical in purposely allowing mistakes to happen. To begin, recognize the four general classifications of mistakes:

  • Low cost, high potential benefit.
  • Low cost, low potential benefit.
  • High cost, low potential benefit.
  • High cost, high potential benefit.

Ideally, you want to leave room only for the first kind of mistake, although you may be willing to accept the fourth kind, if you honestly can’t avoid them.

Control Costs and Risks

There are, of course, costs and risks involved in allowing extra mistakes to happen. To the extent you can limit these costs and risks, making some minor mistakes may actually prove somewhat helpful.

However, it’s not always easy to predict the full cost of an extra mistake. Nor is it possible to know in advance what benefits a mistake may yield. That’s why I’m not advocating that you bet the company, or your personal future, on having your next mistake work out well.

I’m just saying that a little controlled experimentation may occasionally yield some benefits.

One last point: if you do leave room for an extra mistake or two in your work or your life and one occurs, you’ll compound that mistake if you simply allow it to run its course. Should you see that your experiment is going off the rails, even slightly, don’t wait. Start looking for a way to cut it short before you pay the full price.

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