You know how important it is to learn from your mistakes, but the actual process is easier said than done. Despite our best efforts to learn, our brains fight us every step of the way. But with the proper know-how and the right approach, you can clear them with finesse.
We Rationalise That It Wasn’t a Mistake to Begin With
Sometimes, we twist reality so that it looks like we didn’t make a mistake at all. Unfortunately, for you to learn from your mistake, you have to be able to recognise that you’ve made one. We don’t like to feel bad, so we find ways to skirt around the truth. We tell ourselves “I didn’t mess up, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.” This is one of the biggest obstacles you can make for yourself and it’s arguably the most important one to overcome.
This is known as choice-supportive bias, or a tendency to retroactively create positive attributes to a choice you’ve already made. A good example of this is “Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome“, or post-purchase rationalisation. Remember that thing you bought that cost a ton of money and you never really used? Deep down inside you probably knew it was a mistake when you were buying it, but you found a way to rationalise that it was something you really needed after you’d made the mistake of spending all that money.
The same thing happens in your brain when you make other kinds of mistakes. You scarf a tremendous amount of sugary snacks and you tell yourself that it’s ok to treat yourself and that you earned it. You skip going to the gym because you tell yourself that you need a rest day. Your project failed because the idea was so ahead of its time.
This type of thinking can come to us naturally because we don’t want to feel bad. So instead, we get defensive, and start searching for the best possible reason — any possible reason — that doesn’t incriminate ourselves. You might be afraid to admit that you’ve made a mistake — even only to yourself — simply because you’re trying to protect yourself.
It’s not easy to own up to your actions, especially when they make you look foolish to others, but you can’t learn until you do. Adjust your definition of failure and remind yourself that you’re not the only person in the world that makes mistakes. Everybody does, a lot. The thought of never being able to learn from mistakes should be much scarier than the thought of admitting them to yourself.
We Assume the Outcome Will Magically Be Different Next Time
They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s like a maths equation where you are the variable. If you don’t change what you’re doing, you’ll always get the same answer.
Sometimes we convince ourselves that certain outcomes are just the product of outside factors. We start to believe that there are other variables in the equation that we don’t have control of, and one of these days that variable will be just right. As long as we keep plugging away with same old routine, the stars will align and we’ll hit the jackpot. This is similar to another cognitive bias known as the gambler’s fallacy. If you flip a coin and get tails 50 times in a row, you’re bound to get heads the 51st time, right? Of course not, because the odds are the same every time and it’s completely random. You could flip the coin infinitely and never get heads once.
This type of thinking occurs all the time. Say you had an assignment at work that you turned in late. You get chewed out for it, but you chalk it up to an abnormally busy week. The next week it happens again, but you tell yourself that you’ve got a lot going on at home. Is it the same as gambling? No, but it’s the same concept. You’re assuming that it will be different next time just because. You think to yourself:
“I don’t need to do anything differently because it’s all this other stuff that’s making this happen.”
“Next week, things will be better. Next week, that coin will finally land on heads.”
It won’t, though. At least, there’s no guarantee that it will. You need to dissect your week and look at what’s keeping you from getting your work done on time. Get started earlier, stop wasting time on the internet, or get help if you need it. Grab the coin midair and place it heads up. Your mistakes don’t fix themselves — you do.
We Don’t Clearly Identify What Went Wrong
Sometimes, we have the clarity and courage to realise our mistakes and own up to them, but we don’t learn anything because we don’t know why. You can’t learn a lesson without the material! For example, you might have the unfortunate habit of never being able to wake up on time. You might try alarm clock after alarm clock when the real issue is that you don’t go to bed early enough. Don’t assume that the first issue you come across is the true culprit. Line up your suspects and make sure you go over all of the evidence.
If the problem is complex, backtrack as far as you can to go over every milestone along the way. Write it down or draw it out like a flow chart if you have to. Look at the flow of events and ask yourself questions that can narrow things down. Here are some examples:
- What was the probable sequence of events?
- Were their multiple small mistakes that led to a larger one?
- Were there any erroneous assumptions made?
- Was I trying to solve the right problem?
- What would I do differently in the exact same situation?
Lastly, ask yourself if you were attempting the impossible. If so, what happened actually wasn’t a mistake at all. Be careful labelling your mistakes this way, but don’t bring yourself down if all the evidence points to an unavoidable event.
We also let time get the best of us. Time may heal all wounds, but it can also make us forget important details, and look back at things with rose-coloured glasses. You might look back at an old relationship that turned sour and blame its failure on the other person, but there’s likely still some lessons to learn from your behaviour during that time period.
In fact, it may not even be possible to recognise mistakes until some time has passed. Emotions can get the best of us when we make really big mistakes, clouding our vision and keeping us from thinking straight. So take some time to look back every once in a while and see what you can learn from. Just because you didn’t learn from the mistake when it happened doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it now.
We Don’t Seek an Outside Perspective
Sometimes you just can’t do it all on your own, plain and simple. You could be totally aware of your screw ups, go over every move you made with a fine-toothed comb, and still be completely in the dark. Everybody does things without realising it, so whatever is causing your mistakes could be so ingrained in your programming that you literally cannot see it. If that’s the case, you need to ask for some help.
Be warned, however, that asking for help doesn’t guarantee that you’ll figure it out, and you also may not like what you hear. Mark Shead at Productivity501 suggests you go in with the right mindset if you do ask:
Don’t do this unless you really want their input. For example, if you have a good friend at a job you were fired from who is familiar with the situation, ask if there are things you did or didn’t do that they can see that contributed to your failure… Once they tell you, don’t argue. If you disagree, keep it to yourself. They are doing you a huge favour by breaking social norms and being honest with you. If you don’t think their perspective is valid, just set it aside. What may seem irrelevant today might be very useful a year from now.
Remember, it’s not weak to ask for help. It takes courage to open yourself up that way, but you have to have the right mindset or you’ll just get upset. If you don’t feel comfortable getting the perspective of others, try to adjust your own perspective. Look at your problem from multiple angles, or pretend that it wasn’t your mistake to begin with. We’re sometimes better at fixing other people’s mistakes, so look at your mishap as if you’re helping a friend out instead.
We Don’t Even Try
Worst of all: Sometimes, we know something isn’t going right and that it’s our fault, but we don’t even try to fix it. So what do we do instead? We give up. We bitch and moan about how much we suck and complain about how nothing ever goes as planned. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a slap in the face for us to realise it.
That doesn’t mean you have to wait for that slap to come, though. You can catch it and slap yourself. You don’t need to get down on yourself when you drop the ball. You just make yourself feel bad and it snowballs until you don’t believe you can do anything right. You can switch gears and completely alter the way you see your shortcomings before that wake up call arrives. Your perception of the world really is malleable and you have the ability alter your outlook and try. The only one in your way is you.
Don’t rationalise with yourself, stop expecting things to change for no reason, correctly identify what went wrong, and just keep trying. That’s what life is: trying. The best part about mistakes is that we’ve all made them, so there’s no reason to ever feel ashamed. Relish them and find a way to make learning from them fun. Your mistakes will become commodities in no time.