To err is human, to forgive is divine.
Most people hearing that popular quote fixate on the latter part; namely the importance of forgiveness. But what about the former? The acknowledgement that as humans there is a degree of inevitability around making mistakes. Sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, most of us will go through our lives regularly screwing up. The trick, then, isn’t in simply making fewer mistakes but what we do after we make them.
Firstly, let’s clear something up. There are several kinds of mistakes. In the truest definition, a mistake is “an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong.” But it’s important to distinguish between mistakes made with or without intentionality. A mistake made unintentionally; like making a poor business choice that causes your company harm is very different than lying or stealing and then being caught doing so. Both are mistakes, but clearly one is not the other. The latter is not just a mistake but also a bad deed; hopefully one that an individual will later come to regret and realize was a mistake. You can learn from both of the types once you acknowledge that they are mistakes, but it is undoubtedly a thornier and harder process when it might require rewiring your moral compass.
Unfortunately, most of the literature on learning from mistakes is grossly oversimplified. It tends to presume that a little acknowledgement and analysis and maybe an affirmation or two will be a panacea. While a fine start, really growing and learning is a good deal more complicated and thus requires much more work than that.
Building the right mindset.
Before one can begin to think about how to build learning processes you first need to ensure you have the right mindset. Carol Dweck’s seminal book Mindset proposes that there are two types of mindsets; a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset. In practice, most people are on a spectrum rather than unilaterally one or the other. People who tend towards a growth mindset think in terms of “most things are possible, I just need to learn it” whereas those who have a fixed mindset orient towards “there are some things that I am fundamentally good or bad at and that’s just how it is.” Think about how you responded the last time you had to learn something difficult. Was your response simply “I’m not good at this” or was it “I haven’t done this much so I don’t know it yet.” Reframing how you think about your own ability to learn will have a huge impact on learning in total, including how you respond to mistakes.
Destigmatize and build accountability.
As you train yourself to adopt a greater growth mindset (and everyone can improve in this regard, independent of where on the spectrum you start) the second imperative is to reduce any stigma associated with making mistakes. Much like with confirmation bias, we are conditioned not to want to admit when we are wrong. In so doing we find ways to subconsciously convince ourselves of excuses with such convincing regularity that it is fair to say no small number of mistakes we’ve made never register as such. The best way to solve this is to have an individual to whom you speak with regularly who serves as your ‘mistake accountability confidant’. Unlike in an organization where failures are naturally audited and analyzed by a team you are apt to try to undertake it yourself unless you act with intention in looping in close friends and allies to help.
Find root causes and analyze.
Now, equipped with both a growth mindset and the ability to more quickly recognize mistakes you need the tools to actually analyze them. Here it is critical you understand the true root cause of what has resulted in your mistake. That means you need to often dig several layers deeper than the superficial to get to the heart of what is driving your decisions and behaviors. This is the trickiest part of all though if you’ve done the preceding work you’re better suited towards it. Know that as individuals people generally want to shortchange this process; it is psychologically draining to dig deep into how you’ve screwed up and can damage our sense of self confidence – either making us feel at times like a bad person or foolish. The overwhelming majority of well intentioned individuals fail here – they don’t go deep enough. A surface answer, oftentimes the first one they find, proves sufficient and they move on, satisfied with the feeling that they did the work. Since we now know that our default state is to push through deep analysis quickly it is here that developing a detailed process that you document and adhere to is crucial. It is not enough to spend some vague time journaling. The exact specifics of your process can differ – though at a minimum it needs to clearly articulate the underlying reason why the mistake was made, what you learned from it and how you’re going to do or behave differently in the future.
Engineer mistake making.
Finally, there is one last helpful tool to make all of the above processes easier with time: do things where you are highly likely to make mistakes. Whenever you learn any new skill, repetitions are key. Almost all of us get better simply by doing. And learning from your mistakes is a skill much like any other, particularly when it requires us to change our natural behavioral pattern. Importantly, that doesn’t mean go do malicious things that you can later regret. Rather, it means go out and do things where you will be forced to make judgment calls that might be wrong.
If some of the above seems hard that’s because it is. The process of understanding the worst parts of ourselves and our foibles is one nearly everyone would rather avoid. That is exactly why it is so important that we take the time to diligently shine a light on it – it’s one of the easiest and clearest ways for us to improve ourselves as individuals and set ourselves on the path toward greater growth and fulfillment.
This Post is republished on Medium.
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