Mistakes are one of our best opportunities to learn and improve. Unfortunately, we’re conditioned to associate mistakes with failure instead of opportunity and to deny or turn away from them. This way, we end up staying the same and likely making the same mistakes over and over again. To start learning from mistakes requires a change in mindset and habit. This post presents a few ideas on the former and a tool for the latter.
Pros are just amateurs who know how to gracefully recover from their mistakes.Kevin Kelly
The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them—especially not from yourself.Daniel C. Dennett
- Mistakes are inevitable. No matter how careful you are, you will make mistakes.
- Mistakes don’t define you. Disassociate your self-worth from the outcome. Don’t identify with the painful thoughts and feelings associated with mistakes. Instead, be kind and understanding toward yourself.
- Learning is a top priority. Whatever your goal, there’s a good chance that investing in your learning is among the highest-value things you can do. In the long run, the learning benefits from mistakes often outweigh their cost.
- Invest in mistakes. If you want to get good at something, you need to spend a lot of time being bad at it. View mistakes as an investment, rather than something to avoid.
- Maximize your curiosity. Mistakes educate you in the same way that successes do. Recognize that there’s something to learn for you here, and develop a desire to find an answer.
- Pain + reflection = progress. Pain and other unpleasant feelings are a useful signal that there’s something to learn. Take a step back and reflect when you experience pain.
- It’s an iterative process. You don’t have to get this right in one single step. Taking smaller steps and failing more often is a way to succeed sooner.
I recommend using an Issue Log (adopted from Ray Dalio) to develop a habit of learning from mistakes and “failing better”. Here’s how the tool works, step by step:
- Notice that you’ve made a mistake, or that something in your system isn’t working correctly—this is the cue that triggers the routine below.
- Accept and acknowledge the issue. Notice any emotional reaction with self-compassion. Reframe the situation as an opportunity to learn and improve.
- Log the issue. Using a new row on the Issue Log, write down what happened. Try to do this immediately while your recollection of events is fresh. Decide which of the following categories best describes the issue:
- Random accident: Simple statistical fluctuations that don’t hint at any systematic issues. The best response is to acknowledge the issue and move on.
- Enduring weakness: Mistakes that happen predictably over and over again but that you can’t simply eliminate because the source of mistakes is hard to change. The best response is to avoid situations that prompt these mistakes.
- Growth opportunity: Mistakes that happen predictably but where you can identify the source and fix the system. This is where you want to direct your attention. Ask yourself what you can learn from this event and what you can do differently next time.
- Reflect on the issue and identify learnings, again using the Issue Log. Do this periodically, such as once a week or month.
- Improve your systems based on insights from the above procedure.
If you’d like to explore these ideas further, here are a few books that you’ll find useful:
- Principles – Ray Dalio
- Designing Your Life – Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
- Strategies for Learning from Failure – Harvard Business Review
- Why You Should Practice Failure – Farnam Street
- The Ruling Out of Possibilities (On Failure) – Ed Batista