How to Learn From Your Mistakes

by Julie Rains on 28 September 2011 2 comments
Photo: Mike Gifford

Failure is often championed as a critical step in the path to eventual success. The accomplished are those who know how to learn from their mistakes, not people who never make mistakes.

Billionaire Richard Branson is among those very successful business leaders who have overcome failure. As founder of Virgin Group, he says that he routinely learns from mistakes such as the Virgin Cola fiasco. The abilities to overcome obstacles, understand why you made a mistake or experienced failure, and take corrective actions — along with the willingness to abandon a failing venture — are keys to success.

Closer to home, my teenage son recalls this (paraphrased) quote from inventor Thomas Edison in reference to his experiments: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." As such, he has been encouraged to try new things, take risks, and learn through trial and error.

In theory, I understand the concept. Learn from your mistakes in order to move forward in life.

But, how, precisely, does this process work? How do we learn from our mistakes rather than repeat them, hoping for better results the next time? How do we stop simply persevering and start getting things right?

Here are steps you can take to learn from your mistakes. (See also: Fixing Mistakes: 7 Steps for Any Situation)

Recognize the Mistake

The first step, and the most crucial, is recognizing when you have made a mistake.

You may blame circumstances for a setback rather than admitting that you did something wrong, either deliberately or unintentionally. It’s true that a particularly freakish set of conditions may have nullified the effectiveness of your right action, and such a situation may never occur again.

My son, who seems to have an innate ability to learn from mistakes, sets a limit on tries (his number is five) before starting to troubleshoot problems; at that point, he realizes that something is wrong with his approach or there is a factor that he has not considered.

To determine if you are repeatedly making the same mistakes, consider patterns. Do circumstances that you have mentally labeled “unusual” occur repeatedly? If such situations are really the norm, then come to terms with the idea that you are making mistakes over and over.

Take time to reflect on your actions (or absence of actions) in order to determine whether you made a mistake, whether someone else was at fault, or whether uncontrollable circumstances were not conducive to success.

Pinpoint the Cause of the Mistake

Determine the specific action that was a mistake. Figure out what caused an error or triggered a series of missteps.

Bad habits can lead to simple mistakes. For example, you may routinely leave late for work, causing you to take unnecessary risks on the drive to your office; you may overbook your calendar and find that you forget or miss appointments; or you may multitask so often so that you don't pay attention to important conversations and miss details that cause errors.

Whether you find yourself navigating new territory or going over old ground, there may be many possible causes of mistakes. Consider all factors.

For example, as a job hunter, you may have made a mistake when you made an innocuous comment deemed inappropriate by an interviewer. However, your remark could have been insightful, relevant, and appropriate in another setting with another employer or hiring manager. In this scenario, the mistake could have been caused by one of these errors:

  • Being careless in your speech
     
  • Responding too quickly and forgetting to ask a clarifying question that would have allowed you to craft a more appropriate response
     
  • Failing to research companies to understand which comments are acceptable and which are not
     
  • Pursuing opportunities with organizations that are not a good fit with your professional style and capabilities

Consider both the big picture and small details when analyzing what went wrong.

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Dissect Your Rationale and Find the Flaw in Your Thinking

You can readily identify what went wrong if you can define what you hoped would happen and why. How did you imagine things would unfold? And how did things actually happen?

Think about your goals, whether for a work project, a blind date, an email exchange, multi-year business initiative, or a training regimen for a 5K. Evaluate your strategy, plans, and execution in order to analyze your current situation and determine what has happened to prevent you from realizing your objectives.

Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Were my goals reasonable and attainable? Did I make a mistake in setting goals?
     
  • Did I make accurate assumptions about my capabilities and the challenges? Did I make a mistake in judging the situation?
     
  • Did my strategies make sense, given circumstances and goals? Did I make a mistake in charting my course and choosing my methods?
     
  • How logically organized, feasible, and complete was my plan? Did I make a mistake in creating the plan?
     
  • Did my team, colleagues, friends, and I follow the plan? Did I make a mistake in executing the plan?

Narrow down where you may have failed.

Be Ruthless in Your Judgment of Yourself

Consider your actions from an outsider's perspective. Think about what you did and whether you made a good decision given the information you had at the time. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, analyze your approaches, and be honest about whether you had the capabilities to avoid missteps. Very often, this ruthlessness will allow you to see more clearly and understand what you should have done instead.

You don't need to publicly confess your mistakes in order to learn from them. And you certainly don't need to condemn yourself as a failure. But if you reflect on how you contributed to mistakes, then you are much more likely to correct yourself and succeed the next time.

Research

Do research to find out how other people have approached situations similar to yours. You may not find the exact answer, but you can get a sense of what issues you should consider in understanding and recovering from your mistake. This information can be useful when you speak with others about your challenges, showing that you have considered possible problems and helping you to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

Listen to Other People

Often, you need outside help to learn what you’ve done wrong.

Sometimes people will point out your mistakes. Occasionally, these folks can give you valuable insights. But beware of those who dispense one-size-fits-all advice, which is generally not helpful.

A better way to learn from your mistakes is to ask for advice from an expert. Find someone who is wise and trustworthy, who is willing to listen to your explanations of what you've tried so far, and who has experienced success in the areas in which you want to excel.

Apply What You Have Learned

After you have determined what you did wrong in the first place, start behaving in a different way. Try a new approach. Implement a recommendation.

If a situation seems complex, fix one thing and then continue making adjustments. You may find that eliminating one type of mistake gives you clarity to recognize and correct other problems.

Look at your results. Notice what happens when you make mistakes and when you take the right actions. Experiencing success gives you motivation to be ruthless with yourself in future endeavors. You won't stop making mistakes, but errors and failures won't bother you that much; you'll just keep learning as you go.

How do you learn from mistakes?

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Darcy

Only comment I add is on being ruthless judging yourself. Don't do it the point where you are constantly 2nd guessing yourself you need to be able to react quickly these days. Recognize the mistake, note it, and try to correct it the future but don't dwell on it and freeze like a deer in the headlights.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for your comment -- as someone who battles with my internal critic, second guesses, etc. you make an excellent point. And you offer good advice -- to note it, correct, and move on.

I think if you can really start learning from mistakes you become removed from them a bit, and oddly, the mistakes (or fear of them) don't bother you quite so much. So, the ruthlessness, though painful at the moment when you do the analysis, doesn't paralyze you but moves you along. At least that's been my experience -- so that is counterintuitive in a sense.