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.

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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.

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

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