How Your Mistakes Can Make You A More Rational Person

How Your Mistakes Can Make You a More Rational Person

As humans we make mistakes all the time, but we don't often recognise them for what they are: setbacks that are begging to be recognised as useful lessons. Here are some amazing brain hacks that help you learn from your screw-ups and become more rational. Image: ASchindl/Shutterstock.

To learn more about this, we spoke to Spencer Greenberg. He is a mathematician, the co-founder of the artificial intelligence powered investment firm, Rebellion Research, and founder of ClearThinking, an online project that offers free decision making training programs, including one that helps people learn from their mistakes.

Greenberg says that identifying our mistakes, and then learning from them, is one of the most effective ways for us to grow as individuals. Mistakes are often viewed in a negative light, but they present huge opportunities for self-improvement.

Why do you think that learning from mistakes is such an important part of being rational?

Greenberg: When we've made a mistake, we face a choice about what to do. One option is to ignore the mistake. That makes us feel better in the short term, but increases the likelihood that we'll repeat the error later. Our second option is to get serious about understanding why we've made the error. That helps us to correct the underlying problem, and permanently become better.

Some mistakes are so minor or unlikely to occur again that there isn't much to be learned from them. But for many of our mistakes, the rational choice is to put a little time into solving the underlying issue once and for all.

Unfortunately, learning from mistakes doesn't usually come easily. But using a systematic approach can really help. That's why we at created our free online mistakes mini-course, which is full of tips and tricks on how to more effectively learn from mistakes.

This course is part of our mission to help you live better by thinking more rationally about your goals and how to achieve them. Our brains are absolutely incredible, but they aren't perfect. Scientists have identified over 30 cognitive biases that negatively impact human decision making. Our free online mini-courses train people to avoid these destructive biases, including the common tendency to shy away from our errors rather than correcting them.

The first part in learning from our mistakes is recognising that we've made one in the first place. Why is it so hard for us to recognise our errors?

There are at least two reasons why we find it difficult to recognise our mistakes.

First, it feels unpleasant to believe that we've screwed something up. Just as we recoil our hands instinctively from a hot stove, we may instantly direct our attention away from painful thoughts of self-blame. We grope for any explanation that gets us off the hook in order to relieve mental discomfort, whether by blaming the problem on someone else ("she should have given clearer instructions") or justifying what we did ("anyone in my situation would have done the same thing"). But by letting ourselves off the hook without really understanding what happened, we lose our opportunity to improve ourselves.

The second reason it's tricky to recognise our mistakes is that doing so can require investing some time for reflection. Occasionally, we make mistakes that are so obvious that we can't help but acknowledge them. But a lot of times mistakes are subtle. Suppose that you were inarticulate in a job interview, or that you bombed a test because you didn't start preparing early enough. In these situations, you may not even realise that the poor performance was your fault. You may attribute your failure to bad luck, or the interviewer having unreasonably high standards. It could take a bit of time reflecting to realise you've made a mistake at all. But if you can figure out what you did wrong, you may be able to land the job or ace the test the next time around!

Figuring out what you can learn from your mistakes is an important part of getting what you want. Ray Dalio, famous for founding the largest hedge fund in the world, has a nice way of putting this: "Identifying problems is like finding gems embedded in puzzles; if you solve the puzzles, you will get the gems that will make your life much better." He has discovered, as a great many successful people have, that learning effectively from mistakes is critical to performing at a high level. Take a look at world-class athletes. They are obsessed with identifying, understanding and correcting their mistakes, and spend endless hours doing so.

You've said before that every setback is begging to be recognised as a useful lesson. But this is easier said than done, particularly when a mistake tends to make us feel bad about ourselves. How can we best get around this emotional hurdle?

The emotional barriers to addressing our errors can be huge. One of the most effective tricks for me personally is to imagine two worlds, and ask myself which I'd rather be part of. In the first world, I am aware of the flaws that lead to my mistakes, which hurt, but this allows me to continually improve myself and become a better person. In the second world, I ignore my mistakes and pleasantly delude myself into thinking that I didn't cause these mistakes. It's obvious to me which world I'd rather live in, and that vision motivates me to put time and effort into understanding what I've done wrong.

Taking a systematic approach to addressing mistakes can also be very helpful in overcoming emotional barriers. At the end of our 25-minute mistakes mini-course, you can access a tool we designed called the Mistake Analyser. It walks you through a step-by-step process of dealing with any mistake. The Mistake Analyser helps you dig to the real core of the issue, identifying both the immediate and root cause of the problem, and walks you through the process of generating both short- and long-term solutions. This tool makes it a lot easier to find the valuable lesson buried within the mistake and to grapple with negative emotions that come up when you face what you've done wrong.

OK, sure — that's all fine and well. But what if we made a really, really bad mistake, like hurt someone. Guilt can often be quite debilitating.

The worse your mistake is, the more important it is that you never repeat it. We've all had times when we've really screwed things up. But there is a big difference between those who become better by investigating and learning from their errors, and those who don't admit the mistakes even to themselves.

It's useful to distinguish between two types of errors: fluke mistakes that you've never made before, and recurring patterns of error that are caused by the way you currently are. Until you think a mistake through, you can't tell which of these types of errors you've made. It's easy to assume it's a one-time fluke, when in fact it's a recurring issue that needs to be changed.

If you've made a really bad mistake that brings you guilt, and you apply our Mistake Analyser, you're likely to arrive at one of two outcomes. You may determine that the mistake was a fluke, in which case your guilt should lessen. Alternately, you may discover that the error is part of a pattern that requires you to change something about yourself. In the latter case, if you don't change, then the guilt you feel now is merely the beginning: you're likely to make this error many more times and cause a great deal more damage. You'd better do something about it. In either situation, you're better off taking a deep breath, leaning into the pain for a few minutes, and figuring out what really happened.

Many of us, after making a mistake, will rationalise away any errors we may have committed. Do you have some examples of this?

Rationalisation is unfortunately an extremely common tendency. Here's an example. Suppose, that you start a company. After investing years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars, you realise that the business will probably never make any profit. But rather than admitting that you made a mistake sticking with this business for so long, you continue to invest more time and money in the enterprise. You think to yourself, "I've put way too much into this to let it fail." So you deny the mistake, and use a bucket to try to save a sinking ship. If you had been able to admit that you'd messed up, and considered which of your future options were best, you would have realised that you should abandon ship long ago.

This kind of rationalisation is an example of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Our one-hour mini-course on the Sunk Cost Fallacy trains people to avoid making this kind of potentially devastating error, which regularly traps people in sinking businesses, dead-end careers and bad relationships. I think we can all relate to the problem of rationalising our decision to pursue an activity that really isn't best for us any more. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is often at the core of this kind of mistake.

Rationalisation makes us feel better in the short term, because it alleviates the emotional stress of our mistakes, but in the long term it prevents us from improving. To make matters worse, we can start to form the bad habit of convincing ourselves to believe whatever is most convenient to believe. But training in quickly identifying questionable arguments can help. To this end, we created a mini-course on Rhetorical Fallacies, which helps you learn to spot unsound reasoning in yourself and others.

Problems have immediate causes and root causes. Can you explain what this means and provide some examples?

Absolutely. Suppose you had a recent breakup with a significant other. This breakup had an immediate cause, unique to that situation. Maybe in this case the immediate cause was that you and your girlfriend were both bored in the relationship. But there may be a deeper, root cause — a deficiency in your personality or habits that explains how this problem began. It may seem depressing to attribute the situation to a personal flaw, but reframed, it's very empowering: with a little reflection, you may be able to improve all your future relationships!

In this scenario, for example, it could be that you are overly concerned with the looks of the people you date, and so you end up dating good-looking people who you have little connection with. Identifying the immediate cause of the problem may be useful, because it could help you save your relationship (if you decide it's worth saving). But figuring out the root cause may be even more valuable. It can prevent you from making the same mistake for the rest of your life!

Can you describe what you mean by an action plan to avoid mistakes?

If you've ever tried making a New Year's resolution, you probably know that merely willing yourself to make a change to your habits is rarely enough to actually produce this change. We greatly increase our chances of solving recurring problems if we form a concrete plan of action to prevent similar problems in the future — the more specific, the better. You should know what specific actions you need to take to accomplish the change you want to see. This is why our Mistake Analyser tool walks you, in detail, through the process of committing to an action plan. Correcting your mistakes and becoming a better person is worth making a plan for.


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