How to learn from mistakes and create a positive error culture – 6 steps
From spilling coffee to forgetting a meeting, mistakes are a constant part of our daily lives. None of us is immune to making mistakes. However, if you do things the same way as before, there’s a high chance you will repeat the same mistake. Though mistakes may seem like the end of the world, they are actually a great way to learn and grow.
So, how to learn from mistakes? In this practical guide, I will discuss the concepts and psychology behind mistakes and why they should be normalized. I will then outline a step-by-step approach to learning from mistakes and creating a positive error culture.
To err is human
How To Learn From Mistakes? Overview
We often perceive mistakes as fallbacks. It’s easy to blame yourself and others for making a mistake. On the contrary, mistakes are a normal part of growth and are considered the best learning tool. In other words, embrace the mistake, and make it our friend.
Mistakes are as natural as evolution. Evolution is necessary for human survival, and so are mistakes. Did you know that multiple new traits1 that enabled their bearers to conquer new habitats started as simple blunders?
These mistakes that cells made resulted in an altered protein with new and different properties and functions, even when there is nothing wrong with the gene itself. Over time, one such mistake became more permanent and is now part of our genes.
Joanna Masel2 – a biologist, described this phenomenon as:
If the mechanisms interpreting genetic information were completely flawless, organisms would stay the same all the time and be unable to adapt to new situations or changes in their environment.
Since it’s nearly impossible to get everything right on the first try or fix mistakes right away, the best way to evolve is by making errors and learning how to learn from mistakes. In a nutshell, start by trying to normalize mistakes and don’t let yourself dwell on the past.
What’s even more dangerous than making a mistake is allowing it to turn into something bigger. Don’t regret making mistakes but use them as a tool to learn and grow. Without mistakes, we won’t make any discoveries. Life will be stuck where it is and the world will never change or improve. Let's get started.
Improve yourself – Appreciate what you have, but push yourself further. Learn from your mistakes and gain new skills with personal development courses, or finance courses, productivity courses, language courses, or business courses.
Why Do We Make Mistakes?
Making mistakes is a fundamental part of being human, but do you ever wonder why we make mistakes. In the early 1980s, Mayo Clinic doctors looked at the old chest x-rays of patients who later developed lung cancer.
The x-rays were found to be normal by the radiologist who initially checked. However, the team found that in almost 90 percent of the scans, the tumor was clearly visible. In his book, Why we make mistakes, Joseph Hallinan says:
How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average. We human beings have design flaws.
In the book, Hallinan also talks about various incidents where something was plainly visible, yet no one noticed. For example3, the time when a woman in Delaware committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree at the end of October 2005. Passersby thought it was a Halloween decoration, and it took them hours to notice the body.
How To Stop Dwelling On Your Mistakes?
Being afraid of making mistakes is common among humans. From a very early age, we try to avoid mistakes and often become too afraid of taking risks. And why wouldn’t we? Teachers grade down students who make mistakes, bosses blame and berate such employees, and the religion condemns sinners.
But, and here is the but: Dwelling on your mistakes is more dangerous than making mistakes, and it is almost as common as making mistakes. Why? Our mind often runs the scenario repeatedly, and we often end up pondering a simple mistake for days on end. The main issue here is that most mistakes are actually not even serious. That's good.
Rumination is the kind of overthinking where we think about the future and ruminate ver things that have already happened. The ruminative reaction to an event often triggers the memories of similar past incidents with an unproductive focus on the perfect versus real self. In the end, you start criticizing yourself for being less than something.
Alice Boyes (How to stop obsessing over mistakes4) gives the following solution:
- Identify the most common triggers to rumination.
- Put some psychological distance between yourself and the things or topics over which you ruminate.
- Distinguish between negative and positive rumination.
- Learn to distract yourself for a few minutes when you are ruminating.
- Check your thinking patterns for cognitive distortions such as negative or habitual thinking patterns.
Why Is It Human To Blame?
Humans are always quick to judge and blame others. We have an innate desire to find the bad apple, the source of an error, and a person to blame. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board states that people are said to be the probable cause of accidents in 96% of the cases5. Sure thing, our roads are full of incompetent drivers. Isn't it?
Well, scientists call this innate desire the Fundamental Attribution Error6. It’s based on the belief that errors are caused by individuals, not situations. It’s pretty difficult to resist the temptation to blame because it satisfies two basic human needs:
- It removes the feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity that comes with making a mistake.
- The mistake is localized to a person and the others are others no longer feel guilty or responsible.
The Benefits Of Making Mistakes
Please take a moment to think about all the mistakes you have made in the past. Small mistakes like forgetting to add an ingredient to your favorite food dish or putting together furniture the wrong way. Or, bigger mistakes like neglecting a good friendship, your health, or making financial investment mistakes. The questions you may now ask yourself are:
- Did you make all those mistakes in vain?
- Did you make the same mistakes again?
Mistakes are life’s way of teaching us how to live. They shape our minds, personalities, and knowledge and improve our social skills. The only barrier to learning from mistakes is treating them as taboo and not keeping an open mind about them.
With a mind open and ready for growth, your biggest mistakes can turn out to be victories. Don’t take my word for it, though! However, Penicillin6, the first drug that attacked a wide range of bacteria, was found by mistake7, and the discovery changed the very face of medical science and saved millions of lives.
Penicillin is in a long line of things that were discovered by mistake including potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, X-rays, and much more. Making mistakes matters. While we don't have to invent something that revolutionizes the world, any one of us can make this world a better place. Be it for your local community, family, friends, colleagues, or the environment.
How To Normalize Mistakes?
The best way to avoid a blame culture is by normalizing mistakes. It may sound weird, but the process of learning starts by accepting and normalizing mistakes.
1. Normalize mistakes early and often
In one of her articles on how to embrace mistakes8, Amy Eva writes that she started to normalize day-to-day mistakes to her daughter by spilling milk in front of her during meantimes. What may seem like a simple action was intended to make her understand how easy it was to make mistakes and bounce back from them.
2. Focus more on the mistakes
In Learning from Errors9, Janey Metcalfe argues that the culture of ignoring mistakes in American schools appears to be holding back the education system. Based on her research, she states that students actually benefit from making mistakes rather than avoiding them at any cost.
3. Take the fail-first approach to learn
In his book, Learning Gap, Harold Stevenson compares the American and Japanese education systems. American teachers usually focus on teaching the correct method of solving problems. Japanese teachers rather take a fail-first approach to learning.
They rarely praise their students and ask them to try solving the problem on their own. They appreciate the student’s struggle to solve a problem and make mistakes on the way.
Students in U.S. schools don’t make mistakes very often and don’t learn how to avoid them. So, when they actually make a mistake, not only is it new, but more struggling. In contrast, Japanese students outperform U.S. students in mathematics10, the difference in the learning approach can be the reason.
Learning From Mistakes – What Is Positive Error Culture?
A positive error culture is a constructive, open, and solution-oriented approach towards failure and errors. It promotes an environment where errors are accepted as normal to encourage experimentation. When mistakes are openly accepted, it also ensures that others can learn and benefit from the experience.
The best example of a positive error culture is in the airlines. Since multiple lives are at stake, you can't afford to ignore any mistakes or errors. All employees must report any errors so they can be addressed and prevented immediately.
A positive attitude culture does not mean that people can be irresponsible and avoid the consequences. It’s about giving people the confidence to make an informed choice without worrying about the outcome. If something goes wrong, the error data will be used to determine the reason behind the issue to avoid it next time.
How To Learn From Mistakes – 6 Steps
It’s okay to make mistakes, but you need to be ready to deal with the situation. Dealing with the situation gives you time to ponder over why it went wrong and how you can prevent it in the future. Following is the step-by-step guide on how to learn from mistakes.
Step 1 – Admit your mistake
The first step in learning from mistakes is admitting the mistake. It's hard to start the journey towards self-discovery if we don't see and accept our faults. Humans are afraid of being judged and criticized and try to hide behind someone else when making mistakes. At that moment, it may make you feel better, but the guilt will flourish behind the surface.
Psychologically speaking, the best course of action when you make a mistake is to admit and take full responsibility. Don’t try to justify or make excuses. Accepting your mistake is the first step toward fixing it. Not only will you gain the respect of your peer and yourself, but it will also give you much-needed peace of mind.
Step 2 – Don’t dwell on the past
Have you ever found yourself overly fixated on that one time you fell on the stairs? Or spilled coffee on your dress? We’re all prone to overthinking at times, but dwelling on the past is the biggest barrier to self-improvement.
Dwelling on the past is like starting a story over and over again and expecting the ending to change somehow. Overthinking not only opens the same old wounds but also leads to anxiety, depression, and ultimately self-sabotage. Life moves on, even if you don’t!
Start by making peace with your mistakes. You can’t change the past, but you can use the experience to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Furthermore, it’s equally critical to practice self-care. Find a new hobby, start recording your thoughts in a journal, and seek help if you need it.
Step 3 – Shift your perspective about the mistake
The difference between a successful and unsuccessful is usually just perspective. A successful person takes failure as an opportunity to grow. Whereas the others take mistakes as failures that must never be repeated.
Shift your perspective towards mistakes. Instead of viewing them as bad and hurtful, use them as a learning opportunity. Remember that the path to greatness is riddled with errors. The space billionaire and founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, is considered the third-richest person in the world. If he had given up the idea of self-landing rockets because of failure, then he wouldn’t have made history with his rockets.
Mistakes also show progress. They show that you aren’t just sitting idle but trying something new. Even though they may seem like hurdles along the way, they’re actually making your journey towards success more exciting.
Step 4 – Explore the alternatives
To use mistakes as a learning tool, you need to understand exactly what went wrong and why. When you explore the context of your mistakes, you will also come across alternative courses of action. Draw on facts and emotions to decide and prioritize alternatives that have a better chance of success.
Step 5 – Develop a plan of action
After exploring your options and prioritizing alternatives, it’s time to develop a plan of action. It should outline things that you can do differently to get better results in the future. Start by gathering and analyzing information, and implement the plan.
We’re never too old to learn new things. To avoid making the same mistake, we might need new skills or resources. Use them to adjust and improve your action plan in due time.
Step 6 – Get ready for new mistakes
If you are not making mistakes, you are not exploring, which is worse than trying and failing. Even with all the planning, be ready for errors and new mistakes. You will make new mistakes, but you can minimize their impact and manage things more efficiently.
The best way to get ready for and learn from mistakes is by taking a solution-oriented approach to decision-making. It allows you to think a few steps ahead and focus on solutions rather than problems.
At the same time, you’re positively reflecting on the past to make sure that you’re using the experience from previous mistakes to help yourself move forward.
How To Learn From Mistakes? – Summary
Wrapping up our practical guide on how to learn from mistakes and create a positive error culture. In a nutshell, making mistakes is a life lesson that will help you explore new horizons and learn new skills or improve existing structures to increase your productivity.
A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again.– Roy H. Williams
Mistakes are an opportunity to do better next time, and we should make the best out of every mistake we make. Additionally, try to think ahead and plan how to deal with mistakes and how to avoid them going forward. It is absolutely vital in the long run.
How To Learn From Mistakes – Tips & Tricks
- Step 1 – Admit your mistake
- Step 2 – Don’t dwell on the past and mistakes
- Step 3 – Shift your perspective about the mistake
- Step 4 – Explore the alternatives and solutions
- Step 5 – Develop a plan of action
- Step 6 – Get ready for new mistakes. Create a positive error culture.
Survey – How to learn from mistakes? Please suggest your ideas, tips, hacks, and experiences that helped you create a positive error culture. Also, we don't aim to be perfect. If we have made mistakes or omitted important information, please let us know to help improve this tutorial further.
Sources: 1- Evolution by Mistake – ScienceDaily | 2 – Joanna Masel – Profile | 3 – Why we make mistakes – Scientific American | 4 – How to stop obsessing over mistakes – Havard Business Review | 5 – People of Systems – PMC Labs | 6 – How do Penicillins work – Medical News Today | 7 – Penicillin discovery by mistake – Science Museum | 8- How to embrace mistakes – Berkeley | 9 – Learning from errors – Columbia University | 10 – University of Toledo