learning_from_mistakes 

Let me first clarify what I mean by a “bad idea” here. “Bad idea” means ineffective, at best and stopping progress, at worst.

“Learning from mistakes” is an expression strongly rooted not only in our language, but also our thinking. It is accepted as a sound piece of advice for some or a trivial colloquialism for others. The idea is that we make mistakes and we have to learn from them in order to improve. We consider it as a truth.

Now is the time to challenge it. Or at least, challenge what we understand by this expression.

***

You and I make mistakes in our lives. They are inevitable. We made them in the past, we are making them now and we will make them in the future. No doubt about it.

Mistakes are simply misguided actions or poor estimates in the given context or situation. They may involve experiencing borderline cases, crossing the edge or making wrong judgements.

Mistakes have an important role in the learning process and I don’t want to dispute that. They are a part of the feedback on the progress we make. They are however not the foundation of our success.

When is learning from mistakes ineffective?

If you constantly focus on your mistakes and how to improve them, you focus on what does not work. In other words, you concentrate on the problems and not the solutions. This is a trap that one falls into – the trap of losses, misses and the don’ts. What you focus on, takes your energy and expands. If you concentrate your efforts on what doesn’t work, you provide fuel to recreate the very conditions of such situations.  Whether you like it or not.

Imagine this. You want to go shopping. You make a list of all products you don’t want to buy. Does it help you to know exactly what you need? Does it help you to make a smooth buy? Nope. There are plenty possibilities of what you may consider buying even if you precisely know what you don’t want.

Imagine this. You are a teacher at a college or university and you teach a group of students. At the end of the semester you prepare a questionnaire to find out how they benefited from the course. What would you ask?

Would you focus on finding out what they didn’t like?
or
Would you focus on finding out what worked for them?

In all cases of teaching there are usually a few unhappy no matter what. Would you adapt your course, examples and exercises to satisfy the disappointed few or would you rather expand with doing more of what worked for the 90-95% of others? Paraphrasing, would you focus on multiplying your strengths or on improving your perceived weaknesses?

(By the way, a great question to ask in such circumstances is this: “What did you like the most and how can I improve it to make it even better?”)

Imagine this. You are starting a business. One of the advice you will get is to fail often and as fast as possible. This is the idea of learning from mistakes in the context of business. If you follow such a process, however, you will become an expert in the land of unsuccessful approaches. But… Will you know what makes it all work?

The implicit assumption behind “learning from mistakes” is that if you know what doesn’t work, the opposite will pave you the road to success. The reality is not that straightforward, however. Oftentimes, it is a unique combination of strategies, approaches and particular details that fuel progress and create a formulation for success. Such a mixture cannot simply be discovered by negating the things that don’t work.

Do you see where I am leading to?

Knowing what does not work, helps you very little to find out what does, despite what you may want to believe.

Understanding own mistakes does not necessarily lead to progress. They may, in some circumstances, but they usually do not.

Persistence

Take a 9-12 month old infant who learns to walk. Have you ever seen one? Although infants find unique ways to master this skill, they all share one thing. They are persistent and continue doing what they are strong at (or what works for them), no matter what.

Some of them, like my oldest, practiced crawling in a free-style movements and supported standing (i.e. standing up by a table, chair etc), until one day he simply felt ready to walk. His first steps were not just a few, but a 20m straight walk, instead. I was shocked as he simply walked a distance.

My other child was forcing me to hold his hands in order to exercise walking with him until he was ready to do it by himself. Over and over again. Although his first steps were a few only, soon they became many. He demanded help and he received it.

Both children spent somewhere between 5 to 8 weeks on daily practices. Until they succeeded.

The point I want to make is this. Oftentimes, persistence (or perseverance) coupled with a simple strategy is much more effective than multiple approaches, all abandoned too early at the level at which we could perhaps judged them as mistakes or failures.

Foundation

The key point about learning is the same as about concept learning. You need a solid foundation first.

How do you build your foundation? By collecting your positive examples which are used to build your first concept. Studying the examples and experiencing the successes behind them will help to refine the concept further on.

With respect to life it means that you focus on your talents, gifts, model cases, nearly-ideal examples, successes and everything that works for you or others involved.

Mistakes is everything where you sucked at, what others judged as wrong, inappropriate or unsuitable. They serve as an important feedback for the re-formulation of your concept. This is a crucial difference with respect to the usual understanding of the “learning from mistakes” mantra.

Mistakes are necessary for the testing of the boundaries. They allow us to re-define clear (or crisp) edges of the concept we are learning. But in order to make use of the mistakes successfully, we need to have the concept formulated first. And such a concept can only be built by using the positive examples – essential for our learning. This brings us to the final thought here.

Mistakes are not for the learning of a concept/skill but for re-learning of an already formulated concept/skill, especially with respect to the boundary cases.

Finally

Any time you want to learn a new skill or start a new enterprise, learn from successes of yours or others and focus on what works. Build your concept first before you begin testing the boundaries. Only then mistakes can be used effectively.

What does it mean?

If you begin your relationship, make it successful.
When you start your business, make it work.
When you lead a project, bring it to conclusion.

Commit to make your efforts success first before you allow yourself to fail.

***

Photo courtesy Fe 108Aums, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

***

 

serendipity

James at loss

James is a very smart and creative guy. He has grown as an independent thinker and prepared himself for a university carrier. Fast and original thinking was his main asset. It was clear that James was a good fit. Not only was he able to conduct high quality research, but also enthusiastically teach and supervise both students and PhD students well. James applied for a position at a good university.

It was not an arbitrary position, but a specific position toward which he had grown for years. The position was created as a continuation of work that was close to his heart and expertise. He was not only experienced with the work, but more importantly he adored it and was good at. Everybody knew about it.

One day there was an interview for this position. The interview went OK, but despite all the hopes, James was rejected. There were many international candidates. All smart guys. He made a good impression but not the best. He was simply judged to have been missing both managerial and networking skills. Indeed, he was not good at promoting, or selling research or project proposals. It was something to learn.

So, although he hoped for this position, it turned out it was not for him.

It was a hard pill to swallow for James. Much harder than he had imagined.

Disappointment was real and touched James deeply. Very deeply. James did not know what else he might have been doing. It was a dream position he hoped for and prepared for.

What else was to happen to him?

Letting it go

Slowly, he started to look for other positions. And again it became clear to him how much the managerial skills were important. “Too much” he was thinking. After many enquiries, he finally found a job as a college/university teacher. This gave him some joy as he loved to teach. It gave him challenges too. Many students were unmotivated and usually unprepared, unfortunately. So, oftentimes, he had to behave like a policeman forcing knowledge on students. What a pity!

He gave everything to have become the best teacher. He was liked and appreciated there. Yet despite the good results, he was missing the joy of creative thinking. He knew that he was capable of much, much more. He was a scientist in every cell of his body. He wanted to do research. He wanted to create.

And at the moment he thought he was destined to work as a teacher, a little miracle occurred to his surprise.

The little miracle

Thanks to the contribution of few people at the first university a new position was created especially for James. It was an exception on all levels. A specially crafted position. It was created in a way that seemed impossible within the university structure, yet it was possible. As a result, James has become both researcher and teacher doing the work he has loved so much.  He has been fulfilled ever since.

Isn’t that great?

Jack at a crossroads

Jack is a very smart and creative guy. He has grown as an independent thinker and prepared himself for a university carrier. Similarly as James, he was working as a college teacher, but he did it for an additional experience. He choose to work at a university.

His path toward a fixed appointment was long and adventurous, even though he was delivering and producing high quality research output. Much higher than many professors around. Yet, similarly as James, Jack did not like to promote himself. He was a modest person.

After many years at the university, Jack was offered a fixed appointment. It was OKish but not just with respect to the quality and quantity of work Jack was delivering. Jack was simply very good.

Yet, when Jack inquired about the conditions necessary for a promotion he was told it would impossible for him. There was no way for him to fulfil the key responsibilities for the department and it was unclear for Jack why it was so. These were the managerial tasks.

It was a hard pill to swallow for Jack. Much harder than he had imagined.

Disappointment was real and touched Jack deeply. He really wanted to continue at the university where he was. Jack had already gone through may trainings, multitude of university tasks and managerial responsibilities. And it seemed impossible to continue it further on.

What was he to do about it?

Letting it go

After some deep thinking, Jack decided to apply for a higher position at another university. This would have introduced additional challenges for him, including extra travelling, but he was prepared for that. He went for an interview and was judged as very good. And when he was about to have been offered such a job there, the interviewing professors asked for references at his current university.

Surprise

And then, to his surprise Jack was considered as a pure gold at his own university, not to be lost to another one. What a surprise!

Jack was offered a promotion. A promotion he clearly worked for, longed for and fully deserved. And he has been enjoying it well.

Isn’t that great?

***

Moral

What is the moral of these stories?

When you really, really, really want something badly, you must give the best of yourself and, yet, be willing to accept the loss. You have to want it desperately and work towards it, but when the time comes, you have to let it go. Push hard, yet withdraw from the outcome.

You may live through the loss and perhaps investigating alternative routes before you are ready to enjoy the gain.

Why?

Simply because you can only truly win when you are emotionally detached from the outcome.

Intention, passion and action are necessary.

Yet, it is the detachment from the outcome or letting it go that is the last ingredient in the ultimate formula of success.

It does not guarantee the final achievement or result, but it keeps you at the center (between the opposites), where happiness is practiced through the learning and the journey and not because of the results.

When you detach from the outcome, you add some degrees of freedom to your life. And this freedom, counterintuitively, increases your chances of the result.

***

Photo copyright by Moyan Brenn. Photo available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

***

pendulum_rhythm

Up and Down.
Left and Right.
Forward and Backward.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
An everlasting swing between the two opposite patterns.

Rhythm.
The basic principle that governs our lives.
Yes. Rhythm.

Not only is the existence of two opposites important, but also the act of moving between them. We can experience a flow between Day and Night, Inbreath and Outbreath, Giving and Receiving, or Rise and Fall.

Have you ever wondered why you need some rest after a hard work?
Exactly. This is the principle of rhythm.

The principle of rhythm

You cannot go against it even if you try hard. Pushing too much towards one polarity will ultimately force you to go back to the other one, whether you want it or not.This time, however, perhaps under less favorable circumstances than you would like to experience.

For instance, you can work hard for months, or even years, juggling multiple projects and responsibilities, while skilfully balancing on the edge of depletion. But when you don’t regularly incorporate the necessary rest, it will be forced upon you. You will become ill.

Have you ever wondered why politicians, sportsmen, CEOs of the companies, singers or actors rise high up to only collapse soon after?

Indeed, for any great success, there is a great failure. If there is a rise, there is a fall. And oftentimes the rise you observe at the life of others follows the falls you haven’t. Simply because they were not brought to your attention.

The principle of rhythm governs the working of our universe. You cannot simply avoid that. And neglecting this principle or pretending it does not exist, is not going to help either.  The swing is always at work.

The measure of the swing to the left is the measure of the swing to the right

Let us consider an imaginary pendulum. Since symmetry is a natural phenomenon, the pendulum swings between the two opposites in the same degree. So, the swing of a pendulum in one direction determines the swing in the opposite one. And this is metaphorically reflected on all levels of your life, including your mental states.

The higher your ambition, the bigger your challenges and failures.
The greater fear you have, the greater courage you can summon.
The more you give, the more you will receive.
The greater your experience of joy, the greater your capability of feeling sadness.
The more understanding you have, the better realization of how little it is.

And so on.

Cycles

All the phenomena we observe and participate in are governed by cycles. We function in an amazingly orchestrated mechanisms of cycles. These include cycles nested over cycles, even at a deep level. Proper timing becomes essential for making all these cycles work.

For example, we have a cycle of birth, growth, adulthood, maturity, late maturity and death. And within this cycle we may consider a cycle of 7-year development stages, but other cycles are possible as well. Then we have yearly cycles of changing seasons as well as weekly and daily cycles. In addition, there are cycles of our personal and spiritual development, work-related development or about the roles we take into the society, not even mentioning similar cycles for our family members or friends.

All these moderate and high-level cycles rely on the basic rhythm. This is the everlasting swing of ups and downs, lefts and rights, or forwards and backwards. The potent swing between polarities. (Or in an analogy that suggests itself, it is the binary number and the freedom of choice between 0 and 1 that enables us to build more and more complex structures and complicated computer programs.)

Going with the rhythm

The existence of such a rhythm suggests that the best strategy is to become conscious of it and use it intelligently in your life. The key understanding here is the act of balancing between the two sides. No matter which direction you choose and how far you go, you know that you will need to turn back and swing towards the opposite.

Going with the rhythm is the phrase here. Think of the rhythm as of a strong current in the river (of life). The most effortless way to swim in this river is to be either pushed or carried by the current instead of fighting it. This leads you towards the practice of wise men – taking an optimized action with respect to the journey – by paying attention and carefully observing the rhythm.

So instead of being led by circumstances that will accommodate the pull in the opposite direction for you, you act consciously. You are prepared.

This means that in any direction you are currently going, you have already planned and prepared for the movement in the opposite one.

You basically optimize the tasks which coincide well with the benefits of the given polarity, but you still view them from a perspective of the complete system of polarities. By paying attention you will notice the moment in which the pendulum approaches the threshold so that you may begin adopting your actions and strategies accordingly.

For instance, you maximize your work schedules and collect successes when you have a strong wind behind your back, while  you restore, energize and re-structure when the decline comes. For sure lean years will follow the fat ones.

You don’t push for success in the Down-movement or party extensively during the lean years, but you collect your learning points, reflect upon them and draw conclusions. Then you plan your strategies for the Up-movement or plant seeds for the fat years to come.

Understand first

People who fall drastically simply don’t understand this principle. They are the ignorant ones who push far beyond the limits as if they could have risen forever. Or they are the ignorant ones who sit in the depression pit while contemplating the fall as if the circumstances could have gone adversary forever. Nothing further from the truth.

When the fall is on a horizon or lean years ahead, neither the drastic experience of the fall nor famine are necessary. You can perfectly accommodate for the fall and diminish its effects to minimum simply by being prepared (beforehand) and by taking care of what is needed to be done in such times.

Swing, swing, swing

Let the swing become a conscious act of balancing in your life.

Work when you feel passionate and energetic. Rest when you are tired.
Collect your successes when on rise. Restore and energize when the decline comes.
Make your key decisions when you feel positive and joyful. Avoid them when depressed or sad.
Give willingly and receive with gratitude.
Buy stuff and get rid of stuff.
Teach what you learn. Learn what you are going to teach.

Follow the rhythm.
Prepare. Pay attention. Optimize your acts.
You will master your life by mastering the swing from one opposite to the other.

***

Photo by Misko13, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

 

Let’s say you are making progress in spurts. You live comfortably from one day to another until you encounter a certain idea.

Not an idea. A strong idea.

Perhaps you read a book. Or you listen to the news.
Perhaps you overhear a conversation in a bus. Or your colleague shares his unusual strategy for success.
Perhaps you are surprised by a movie. Or you witness a healing.
Perhaps your employer introduces changes that will effect you in a tremendous way. Or your wife turns raw foodist.
Perhaps you learn about unschooling. Or your government makes a change in the constitution.
Whatever.
There comes a time when an idea you are exposed to kicks you out from your comfort zone.

It is sudden. It is shocking. It shakes the ground on which you are standing.

Wow! You are surprised  that an idea has such an effect on you. The idea strikes you so deeply that it nearly takes your breath away.

You are anxious.

You are out of balance.

You want to shout.

Oh, how much you wish to get back to your old and comfy shell. But it’s not possible. Because the idea is in your mind now, happily crawling there.

Oh, yoh yoh yoh…. It’s like a bug. Like two bugs. Wait … like three bugs. No. It is a colony of bugs! They are walking around, freely exploring and digging tunnels in the decks of your mind.

What to do now???

Colony of bugs

You are confused. Yet you realize that you have two choices now. Either you starve the bugs or you organize your colony and get in charge.

You do not like the process that is ahead of you. You do not like to be outside your comfort zone. You start to pretend that you have not encountered the idea in the first place. You will do everything to ‘forget’ the idea. You will deliberately jump into certain activities such as work, mountaineering or programming, completely devoting yourself to the tasks for long hours. So long that there is no time left for thinking.

Such a strategy may help you to push the idea to the back of the mind. The idea will perhaps disappear from the conscious mind for some time.

But, no, no, no. Do not be fooled.

The idea is not dead. The bugs are dead. The idea is not.

The bugs have laid their eggs and hid them in multiple places. The eggs are well protected from your influence. When the time comes, new bugs are going to hatch from the eggs and they will start their exploration. The idea will come back. With a full force. And stronger than before.

So, once an idea gets into your mind, the only way forward is to confront it, feed it and manage it. To your benefits. Obviously, you may choose to indefinitely postpone these acts, but it will cost you time and huge effort to keep starving the bugs over and over again. Moreover, it will become increasingly more difficult. Therefore, it  is much more efficient to organize your colony of bugs and become the captain of your conscious growth.

Stages of transformation or how to tame your wild bugs

How to do that?

As in any disorder or chaotic behavior you need to accept the transformation path. Change is a process. In most cases, it goes naturally through seven stages. Learn what they are. Knowing how transformation evolves will help you to be prepared and optimize both the learning and the process to your benefit. The seven stages are:

1. Surprise (the mild version) or Shock (the strong kick)

Surprise or shock occur because you often encounter such an idea by accident. Or, you are confronted with an idea that shakes your thinking patterns or challenges your behavior. The bugs invade your mind and run in arbitrary directions. Chaos is everywhere. You feel lost.

2. Denial or Rejection

Homeostasis is your preferred state so you want to find your old balance back. The only way is to reject the intruder idea. You either pretend the bugs are not really there or you force the bugs into a certain ‘compartment’ in your brain. They keep escaping, though.

3. Rational Understanding

Since the idea is a living thing in the mind and is perpetuating, your first getting along with the idea is to think it through and rationalize it. You make an effort to understand it. When you attempt to understand the idea, you start to follow the free movement of the bugs. You begin to discriminate between tunnels and pathways they make. You notice their preferences. And you think about consequences where these paths cross with paths of other bugs, bugs representing other ideas. You begin to notice the flow. The intensity. The patterns. And you slowly collect pieces of the puzzle: you begin to see the meaning of the new connections, between old and new paths.

4. Crisis

Most of the shocking ideas are shocking because they challenge your core values or beliefs, break old patterns or present radically new concepts that require change.

Once you understand what is going on and what is required for a change, there is a rebellion. It is usually when you understand the consequences of incorporating the idea into your life. You see the gap between the familiar old self and the new one that has to yet emerge after the idea is taken on board. Crisis results from being overwhelmed by the enormity of the transformation. Mind understands it but there is pain of leaving the old, fear of unknown and anxiety about the path.

This is when the bugs start to make the ‘bzzzzzzzz’ noise in your mind. They get loud. And even louder than that. The seem to go faster. And they make even more noise. It becomes so loud and so much merry-go-round running in your thoughts that you feel you cannot handle it any longer. You shout “Stop!”.

5. Emotional Acceptance

This comes after crisis. Emotional acceptance occurs when you are willing to change your values or behaviors. You accept the transformation.

The danger, however, is that you may actually get stuck in the Crisis stage. It takes a conscious thought and managing emotional flow in order to accept what the idea brings to you. It often requires to accept the worse possible consequence or change that has to happen and come in terms with it. Once it is achieved, there is relief and a real progress begins.

A real change takes place when you accept the existence of the bugs and you allow them to penetrate your mind. Moreover, you actually start to appreciate them. You begin to like them and the novelty they brought. You enjoy observing their patterns, how they jump over certain areas while slow down in another one. You start to communicate with them. You are becoming friends.

6. Learning:  Thinking -> Experimenting -> Reflection -> Realization

In this stage you experiment with the implementation of the idea or its baby steps. This step may be quite some fun if you approach it from this angle.

This is a moment in which you start new learning. You take specific actions and observe the response. You widen certain tunnel and narrow the others. You close some paths or introduce obstacles half way. You bring bugs from your other ideas and see how the communication goes. You optimize the paths for efficiency and joy. You observe.

You analyze the circumstances and the results from your active experimentation. Then you notice similarities and introduce cross-roads with bugs from other ideas. You reflect and draw conclusions. Then you re-think your whole set-up, make necessary improvements and begin a more advanced experimentation and learning. This can easily go in multiple stages.

7. Integration

True learning leads to new behaviors or new routines. You have changed and your new patterns of thinking and acting have been integrated into your being. The new behaviors mark your new comfort zone.

Your bugs follow clear paths in your mind. They communicate well with other bugs and together they make a fantastic, well functioning and  well-orchestrated city of bugs. Ideas, I mean :).

***

There is a choice you can make any time you encounter a shocking idea, an unexpected change to happen or undesired circumstances to go through. It is a simple choice. You make it and you follow through.

Choose to become the captain of the idea bugs.