It’s common to hear that we should learn from our mistakes, but it’s rare to hear how we’re supposed to do that. I made a mistake this week, so let’s use that as an example to derive some steps to learn from our mistakes:
This week I had intended to work on my thesis every morning, but I procrastinated a lot. I was starting a new section but did not know where to start (“don’t know where to start” is a perfect cue for my procrastination). After I realized I made a mistake – took me a couple of days – rather than just feeling bad anymore I now automatically started looking for clues (with help of a roommate). I had been waiting for feedback on my first section’s draft, the basis for the second section. What’s more, I suddenly remembered I had had this problem before! I’m never productive when I’m waiting for feedback, because I don’t really know what to do: should I move on, should I wait? I resolved to spend my feedback period for exploration: reading related books or articles to get new ideas, get a broader perspective, and to remember why I found the topic interesting to start with. Let’s see if that works.
Let’s dive into it.
Step 0. Recognize
We don’t always recognize that we’re making a mistake. There’s no mistake to learn from if we don’t recognize it. This is a sense that can be developed and highly worth investing in! For example, at first I did not recognize “feeling bad” was the consequence of a response I could have handled differently! You can also set up your environment to more easily recognize mistakes. Recently I have started a weekly conversation with an accountability buddy to set goals for the next week and analyze how the pursuit of last week’s goals went. This goes both ways and it’s guaranteed to recognize some mistakes. More informally just talking to friends about negative things helps as well!
Step 1. Admit
We need to admit we made a mistake. This is not only meant for mistakes with consequences for others, but also for personal mistakes that only affect ourselves. It’s important to focus on the behavior (“I made a mistake”) than on the person (“I am a bad person”). Why focus on behavior rather than the person? Mostly because psychologists think it’s best. If I have to give my own reason, I think that focusing on the behavior creates a dynamic mindset (“things change, so I can change things”), while focusing on the person creates a static mindset (“things are as they are, no way to do anything about it”). This is probably not the full picture, but the heuristic of focusing on behavior, not the person seems useful.
Admitting seems logical, but it’s not that easy. It requires breaking out of shame. It’s easier to ignore it (“just forget about it”) or even deny it was your mistake. Ignoring a mistake is very tempting once the consequences have been dealt with. However, if the cause is still there, we’ll likely make the same mistake in the future. Dealing only with the consequences is often not a long-term solution.
Step 2. Analyze
Once a mistake is admitted it becomes easier to look at it; the sting is out of it. Mostly you’re not going to sit down and write an analysis report about your mistake (although if you journal, you might). However, some good questions to ask are: what happened? Why did it happen? Has this happened before? Could I have seen it coming? Have I talked to someone about this earlier and what did they say? Look for patterns.
Step 3. Address
A problem can be addressed on different levels. The more general a solution, the more worthwhile it is to spend time thinking about it and developing it. If the mistake is specific (e.g. “I spent too much time on Facebook’s Newsfeed”) develop a micro-solution (downloading a newsfeed blocker). A medium-level problem (“when waiting for feedback, I don’t know what to do”) requires a less specific solution (“go explore related content”). A highly generalized version of the problem is that I need alternative strategies when I am not directly productive. I actually already have a response to this: I ask myself “what can I do now that will make me more productive in the future?” Depending on the situation this means I could do sports, do little tasks that I otherwise would have to do later, organize my stuff, or read related content. The challenge with general solutions is knowing when to apply them, and applying them enough.
Optional step 4: share
Talking about mistakes and our solutions on the different levels helps others deal with (or recognize) their mistakes to! Promoting a culture of sharing helps everyone move forward quicker. As the promo-hipsters on Facebook say: ”sharing IS caring <3”
To summarize, we can learn from our mistakes and fix problems, but clear steps are better than vague advice. Set up systems to recognize a mistake, admit that you made it (focus on behavior), analyze the problem, and address the problem on the appropriate levels. Now go make a mess!
NB: Not every mistake has a cause that should be priority to address. Sometimes there are more important things in life and the appropriate reaction is “well that’s just how it is for now, sorry but deal with it”. However, this cannot be a permanent attitude to a problem.
NB2: I know I don’t refer a lot and that’s bad form. I often base my ideas on earlier reading but don’t know exactly which ideas to attribute to which background. I took inspiration from James Clear (specifically Treat failure like a scientist), Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, and Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability.