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You can only learn from a mistake after you admit youíve made it. As soon as you start blaming other people (or the universe itself) you distance yourself from any possible lesson. But if you courageously stand up and honestly say ďThis is my mistake and I am responsibleĒ the possibilities for learning will move towards you. Admission of a mistake, even if only privately to yourself, makes learning possible by moving the focus away from blame assignment and towards understanding. Wise people admit their mistakes easily. They know progress accelerates when they do.

This advice runs counter to the cultural assumptions we have about mistakes and failure, namely that they are shameful things. Weíre taught in school, in our families, or at work to feel guilty about failure and to do whatever we can to avoid mistakes. This sense of shame combined with the inevitability of setbacks when attempting difficult things explains why many people give up on their goals:

But for many reasons admitting mistakes is difficult.

For anyone than never discovers a deeper self-identity, based not on lack of mistakes but on courage, compassionate intelligence, commitment and creativity, life is a scary place made safe only by never getting into trouble, never breaking rules and never taking the risks that their hearts tell them they need to take.

Learning from mistakes requires three things:

Putting yourself in situations where you can make interesting mistakes

Having the self-confidence to admit to them

Being courageous about making changes

The four kinds of mistakes

One way to categorize mistakes is into these categories:

Stupid: Absurdly dumb things that just happen. Stubbing your toe, dropping your pizza on your neighborís fat cat or poking yourself in the eye with a banana.

Simple: Mistakes that are avoidable but your sequence of decisions made inevitable. Having the power go out in the middle of your party because you forgot to pay the rent, or running out of beer at said party because you didnít anticipate the number of guests.

Involved: Mistakes that are understood but require effort to prevent. Regularly arriving late to work/friends, eating fast food for lunch every day, or going bankrupt at your start-up company because of your complete ignorance of basic accounting.

Complex: Mistakes that have complicated causes and no obvious way to avoid next time. Examples include making tough decisions that have bad results, relationships that fail, or other unpleasant or unsatisfying outcomes to important things.

(Iím sure you can come up with other categories: thatís fantastic, please share them here. But these are the ones youíre stuck with for the rest of this essay).

Learning from mistakes that fall into the first two categories (Stupid & Simple) is easy, but shallow. Once you recognize the problem and know the better way, you should be able to avoid similar mistakes. Or in some cases youíll realize that no matter what you do once in a while youíll do stupid things (e.g. even Einstein stubbed his toes).

But these kinds of mistakes are not interesting. The lessons arenít deep and itís unlikely they lead you to learn much about yourself or anything else. For example compare these two mistakes

The kind of mistakes you make define you. The more interesting the mistakes, the more interesting the life. If your biggest mistakes are missing reruns of tv-shows or buying the wrong lottery ticket youíre not challenging yourself enough to earn more interesting mistakes.

And since there isnít much to learn from simple and stupid mistakes, most people try to minimize their frequency and how much time we spend recovering from them. Their time is better spent learning from bigger mistakes. But if we habitually or compulsively make stupid mistakes, then what we really have is an involved mistake.

Involved mistakes

The third pile of mistakes, Involved mistakes, requires significant changes to avoid. These are mistakes we tend to make through either habit or nature. But since change is so much harder than we admit, we often suffer through the same mistakes again and again instead of making the tough changes needed to avoid them.

But this is a trap: refusing to acknowledge mistakes, or tendencies to make similar kinds of mistakes, is a refusal to acknowledge reality. If you canít see the gaps, flaws, or weaknesses in your behavior youíre forever trapped in the same behavior and limitations youíve always had, possibly since you were a child (When someone tells you youíre being a baby, they might be right).

Another challenge to change is that it may require renewing commitments youíve broken before, from the trivial ďYes, Iíll try to remember to take the trash outĒ to the more serious ďIíll try to stop sleeping with all of your friendsĒ. This happens in any environment: the workplace, friendships, romantic relationships or even commitments youíve made to yourself. Renewing commitments can be tough since it requires not only admitting to the recent mistake, but acknowledging similar mistakes youíve made before. The feelings of failure and guilt become so large that we donít have the courage to try again.

This is why success in learning from mistakes often requires involvement from other people, either for advice, training or simply to keep you honest. A supportive friendís, mentorís or professionalís perspective on your behavior will be more objective than your own and help you identify when youíre hedging, breaking or denying the commitments youíve made.

The biggest lesson to learn in involved mistakes is to that you have to examine your own ability to change. Some kinds of change will be easier for you than others and until you make mistakes and try to correct them you wonít know which they are.

How to handle complex mistakes

The most interesting kinds of mistake are the last group: Complex mistakes. The more complicated the mistake youíve made, the more patient you need to be. Thereís nothing worse than flailing around trying to fix something you donít understand: youíll always make things worse.

Start by finding someone else to talk to about what happened. Even if no one was within 50 yards when you crashed your best friendís BMW into your neighborís living room, talking to someone else gives you the benefit of their experience applied to your situation. They may know of someone thatís made a similar mistake or know a way to deal with the problem that you donít.

But most importantly, by describing what happened you are forced to break down the chronology and clearly define (your recollection of) the sequence of events. They may ask you questions that surface important details you didnít notice before. There may have been more going on (did the brakes fail? Did you swerve to avoid your neighborís daughter? etc.) than you, consumed by your emotions about your failure, realized.

If multiple people were involved (say, your co-workers), you want to hear each personís account of what happened. Each person will emphasize different aspects of the situation based on their skills, biases, and circumstances, getting you closer to a complete view of what took place.

If the situation was/is contentious you may need people to report their stories independently Ė police investigators never have eyewitness collaborate. They want each point of view to be delivered unbiased by other eyewitnesses (possibly erroneous) recollections. Later on theyíll bring each account together and see what fits and what doesnít.

An illustrative example comes from the book Inviting disasters Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the edge of technology. It tells the story of a floating dormitory for oil workers in the North Sea that rolled over during the night killing over 100 people. The engineering experts quickly constructed different theories and complex explanations that focused on operational errors and management decisions.

Here some questions to ask to help your investigation:

What was the probable sequence of events?

Were their multiple small mistakes that led to a larger one?

Were there any erroneous assumptions made?

Did we have the right goals? Were we trying to solve the right problem?

Was it possible to have recognized bad assumptions earlier?

Was there information we know now that would have been useful then?

What would we do differently if in this exact situation again?

How can we avoid getting into situations like this? (What was the kind of

situation we wanted to be in?)

Was this simply unavoidable given all of the circumstances? A failure isn't a mistake if you were attempting the impossible.

Has enough time passed for us to know if this is a mistake or not?

As you put together the sequence of events, youíll recognize that mistakes initially categorized as complex eventually break down into smaller mistakes. The painted over crack was avoidable but happened anyway (Stupid). Was there a system in place for avoiding these mistakes? (Simple). Were there unaddressed patterns of behavior that made that system fail? (Involved). Once youíve broken a complex mistake down you can follow the previous advice on making changes.

Humor and Courage

No amount of analysis can replace your confidence in yourself. When youíve made a mistake, especially a visible one that impacts other people, itís natural to question your ability to perform next time. But you must get past your doubts. The best you can do is study the past, practice for the situations you expect, and get back in the game. Your studying of the past should help broaden your perspective. You want to be aware of how many other smart, capable well meaning people have made similar mistakes to the one you made, and went on to even bigger mistakes, I mean successes, in the future.

One way to know youíve reached a healthy place is your sense of humor.

So the most important lesson in all of mistake making is to trust that while mistakes are inevitable, if you can learn from the current one, youíll also be able to learn from future ones. No matter when happens tomorrow youíll be able to get value from it, and apply it to the day after that. Progress wonít be a straight line but if you keep learning you will have more successes than failures, and the mistakes you make along the way

will help you get to where you want to go.

The learning from mistakes checklist

Accepting responsibility makes learning possible.

Donít equate making mistakes with being a mistake.

You canít change mistakes, but you can choose how to respond to them.

Growth starts when you can see room for improvement.

Work to understand why it happened and what the factors were.

What information could have avoided the mistake?

What small mistakes, in sequence, contributed to the bigger mistake?

Are there alternatives you should have considered but did not?

What kinds of changes are required to avoid making this mistake again?

What kinds of change are difficult for you?

How do you think you behavior should/would change in you were in a similar situation again?

Work to understand the mistake until you can make fun of it (or not want to kill others that make fun).

Donít over-compensate: the next situation wonít be the same as the last.

The link to this essay is
23rd August 2006 From India, Delhi
learning from mistakes is always recommended, but I think only upto a point. One can't go on making mistakes forever. At some point, he/she will have to start getting things right. Just a thought...
24th August 2006 From India, Gurgaon
HI Divisha and Devjit,
Thanks for the inputs.
Divisha, the post is all about this only, that you should learn from each mistake you make no matter how big it is or small it is.
What I feel is, no body is perfect. So keep making mistake always till the end of our lives and that's why this article tells you to learn from all mistakes and improve as a human being.
Each mistake you make teaches you a lesson, and that lesson helps in our improvement to get nearer to perfection.
So, make mistake and learn :D
24th August 2006 From India, Delhi
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