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Learning From Mistakes and Failures

Nobody’s perfect. To be reminded of that fact can be reassuring whenever we flunk a test, miss a deadline, make a social gaffe or otherwise fail. To err is human, after all. But to take advantage of errors—to learn from mistakes and failures—isn’t such a universal trait. It’s a skill that marks successful individuals and organizations, and not all have it. It’s also a skill that can be learned, but not before getting over an emotional hurdle or two.

Think positively

Learning from failure requires taking an optimistic view of it; a positive attitude is essential. It’s important to think about a mistake in a way that points toward new, useful knowledge rather than self-pity. “What have I learned?” is a much better question to ask than “How could I have been so stupid as to do such a thing?”

To develop this habit of positive thinking, you may have to unlearn some old lessons about mistakes. “A lot of us grew up thinking mistakes weren’t a good thing,” says Macon, Ga.-based psychologist Dan Johnston. And it is better, of course, to be right than to be wrong, to succeed rather than fail. But there’s a price to be paid for trying too hard to avoid mistakes and failure, and for being so intimidated by them that you stop trying new things and taking reasonable risks. “Getting people who are somewhat perfectionistic to change,” Johnston says, means “getting them to change their (inner) dialogue, seeing that mistakes are useful.”

Resilience—a mark of success

The emotional quality that makes such learning possible is resiliency, the ability to bounce back from failures and disappointments. Management consultant John Baldoni says, “Most successful people are highly resilient … most have been knocked down more than once.” This bounce-back quality grows out of a generally positive attitude, stress reduction and relaxation. (“In order to be resilient, you have to have fun every day,” Johnston says).

Experts say that if you still have trouble figuring out how to bounce back and learn from mistakes, you should watch (or remember) how a baby learns to walk. It is a process of trial and error, capped by a few triumphant steps. Even then, the toddler isn’t ready to do high hurdles. The child starts out rough and error-prone and gradually develops grace, balance and confidence.

Review previous actions

Children do all this without worrying about their progress. Adults worry, and they have to make a conscious effort not to let their worrying get in the way of their learning. Is there a technique to accomplish this? Management psychologist Elizabeth Gibson suggests imitating the armed forces: “When something goes wrong, you can do what the military calls an after-action review. Ask, ‘What could I have done differently?’ Then, ask what you can do in the future.” This technique, Gibson says, “keeps you out of pity city.” She says you may learn from such an exercise that there was nothing different you could have done. It’s also possible that the lesson will be less encouraging than you would like.

Errors also teach you about your limitations as well as your abilities. If you’re in a job that never seems to go right and never seems to get easier, it may be time to change positions. “If you continually find yourself running up against a brick wall, perhaps that’s not the place for you,” Baldoni says. Even in this case, it’s important to stay resilient. Leaving an unsuitable situation forces you to do something new and (typically) deal with new people. It leads to risk, and you have to be willing to accept it. Life sometimes teaches negative lessons, but that knowledge is best put to use in a positive frame of mind.

Sources:Dan Johnston, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, Mercer University School of Medicine, Macon, Ga.; Elizabeth Gibson, PhD, co-founder, KnoWorks, Wimberly, Texas; John Baldoni, Baldoni Consulting, LLC, Ann Arbor, Mich.

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