How to learn from our mistakes: recognize, admit, analyze, address

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.

Everything follows the path of least resistance

Epistemic status: feeling strongly I am onto something, but also confused how to apply it to all cases. I describe my ideas in my own words, and am not communicating them clearly. Given the strength of my claim, it’s probably wrong. But let me defend it anyway.

Everything follows the path of least resistance. And when I say “everything” I don’t mean “most things”, I mean everything.

People who are lazy are sometimes described as taking the path of least resistance. Of course, I agree (because I believe that everything takes the path of least resistance). However, this implies that hard-working, conscientious people are taking a more difficult path. They’re eschewing the path of least resistance. That’s wrong. Hard-working people have done at least one of both things, and probably both:

  1. They have made the hard path easier. Going to work an hour early has become habitual, or asking difficult questions when they are confused has become habitual.
  2. They have made it easy path(s) harder. They feel negatively about being lazy, are afraid of being judged, or simply don’t know how to be lazy. It’s not a habit.

Why does water flow downward and through the valley? It’s the path of least resistance. (And interestingly, just like habits, the more water has flown somewhere previously, the more likely this path will be the path of least resistance for new water).

Why do people when confronted with their own immoral behavior, often change their belief rather than their behavior? Because it’s the path of least resistance.

Why is it so hard to stick with very hard problems? Because it’s high resistance. Why have some exceptional research been able to really focus on the hard problems? Because they have made it easier, and have erected barriers to the other paths.

Why is it so hard to change organizations? Because sticking with habits is the path of least resistance. To change organizations, you must create resistance towards the current state of being and create believe that the change is not so hard after all.

Now there remain at least three questions:

  1. Why does everything follow the path of least resistance?
  2. Is there not random movement, not following anything?
  3. What about payoffs? Surely a hard path with a good payoff will be taken.

I think the answers to the questions are related to evolution. Yes, there is random movement. But everything faces a selection pressure: animals will mate, ideas will be spread. The selection favors the ones taking the path of least resistance, because they will be most successful: the most offspring, the most energy left to do other valuable things. Regarding the payoff, for people a higher payoff will make a path more attractive (thus lower resistance). For thing without intent, the expected payoff (probability of achieving * actual payoff if achieved) will determine attractiveness for large enough samples.

If I’m right, this has the implication that a global optimum cannot be reached without changing the landscape. You got to erect barriers to the easier optima, and pave the way to the global optimum. More practically, I think this can serve as a tool for understanding confusing phenomena: ‘why does X do Y?’ Because it’s following the path of least resistance. You then need to figure out what the other paths are, what their resistances are, and why they are higher.

I challenge anyone to show me an example of something not following the path of least resistance. I believe that if I understand the phenomenon enough, I can show it actually does.

In the meantime, I will think more about this. I believe I need to read more about evolution (in its abstract form, not necessarily biological evolution).

Ambition is empty without direction

I used to find ambition a dirty word. It’s something for Slytherins: calculating, egoistic people who want to be successful and want high status and who want to be powerful. My opinion has changed gradually over time, and I have now arrived at an almost opposite position; I believe ambition is enormously important for the good of the world, and I want to understand it better. Here is how I currently view ambition.

Ambition is setting goals that are hard to achieve which require a lot of effort. But it’s mostly related to input and output. Ambitious people want to achieve a lot, and are willing to put in a lot. But what are the goals about? They can be about personal success, the success of a group’s agenda, the success to get power for the sake of power, or the goals can be to do good. Someone’s ambition is determined by the difficulty of the goal, but goals have different directions. A good metaphor are arrows. Ambition is the size of the arrow, but values are the direction of the arrow. To do good, we need to multiply the direction of the arrows with the size of the arrow.

Obviously I have simplified things. I have forced values onto one-dimension. As if the “rightness” of values can be captured so simply. I’m not sure if that can be done. Nonetheless, I think this is a powerful metaphor. Hard work and ambitious goals are not enough in life, and neither are having the right values. Both need to be present in order to make a large and positive impact. I would like to see do-gooders think more about how they can create a largest impact. My dedication to effective altruism is well-known. But I would also like to see ambitious people think more about the values they are ambitious for, to see them engage with moral and political philosophy which attempt to find the right values to have. So be ambitious, but try to be it in the right direction.

A schematic display of conversation

This is my first attempt of externalising the ideas I have built I through having many conversations, primarily by those with my best friend, Justin. Regularly, when we talk, we take a sort of meta perspective: we look at or discuss the conversation from a distance. We’ll say things such as: “how did we get to this topic?” or “let’s go back a bit”. I think this is not at all unique to us, but we do it a lot. I think this is a very important part of the skill of conversing, so I will attempt to explain how I/we look at conversations. This is not an attempt to formalise conversations, or to show the “true structure” of conversations. I believe that would require a lot of knowledge about epistemology, which I do not have.

First off, let’s start with a sentence: “John was not in class today”. From this sentence, we can go several directions. Let’s use two responses to keep the example simple: “What did you do in class?” and “Why was John not in class today?” I will represent this as follows:

In a real conversation, you can only take one direction at a time. Therefore, you are always – consciously or subconsciously – making decisions of where the conversation is going. Different conversations can differ in their entertaining, bonding, or informational value. A good converser is able to steer the conversation into high value directions. Below is a larger conversation scheme, which I will use to highlight some interesting concepts:

So a possible conversation could go like this: “John was not in class today.” “Why was John not in class today?” “He rather spends his time reading fantasy books.” “Oh, I like fantasy too, especially when there’s multiple races involved!” and then the conversation can go on and on, about fantasy, about different races and the portrayal of the human race in fantasy, about fiction vs. non-fiction etc. However, one of the persons can also go back in the scheme, and talk or ask about what happened in the class, that would look like this:

Furthermore, this scheme is very simple. Every node consists of one sentence only, and two responses. What’s more, the different nodes can be grouped according to topics. A more complicated scheme looks like this:

So what are the implications of this? First of all, if you are aware of how conversations are structured, you can use this to create a more valuable conversation. You can return to a previous topic and take a different direction, or you can not mention the first thing that comes to mind, because you want to steer clear from a certain topic. Furthermore, if both you and your conversation partner(s) are aware of how conversations can be viewed, your meta conversation skills will allow to collaborate and create valuable conversations! I hope to write more about conversations in the future, and also venture more into how this model can be applied to thinking.

I am aware that I have left at least several things out of this post, for example:

  • not every relation is the same
  • who says what matters
  • you can arrive at points from different angles
  • different people have different associations (creative, stoned and knowledgeable people may have more associations, and thus more directions for a conversation to go in)

Actually this scheme is just a scheme of relations between concepts, and conversations are concept schemes that are passed through, because time passes.