When we’re little, we learn by doing things wrong and experiencing the consequences: we pull the cat’s tail and get scratched, we get curious about the oven and get burned and we repeatedly crash land when Dad first takes the training wheels off our bikes. Kids learn quickly that certain techniques work; it’s those techniques they then begin to use everyday to succeed.
When we’re adults, however, we seem to be slightly more reluctant to learn from our mistakes, and much more brutal with ourselves when we don’t learn. With such high expectations for ourselves, we beat ourselves up when we fail to meet our own high standards.
The importance of mistakes
After Thomas Edison designed the lightbulb, a famous quote was attributed to him, saying, “I didn’t fail, I just found 2,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb.”
First off, it’s important to note his take on failure, or lack thereof. He didn’t fail at all; he learned.
Sure, he learned how not to make a lightbulb, but consider the perspective he had – instead of failing 2,000 times (which would be incredibly discouraging), he instead learned 2,000 ways of how to not craft a lightbulb (take the number 2,000 here with a grain of salt as some sources provide a different number).
If you look at it the second way, he learned from his mistakes instead of becoming overwhelmed with failure.
And that’s the key. When you are trying to deal with past mistakes, it’s not about beating yourself up for something you did long ago. It’s about viewing those mistakes as learning lessons and moving forward with those new lessons in mind.
How can I learn from mistakes?
In order to learn from an error, there are steps you can follow to grow in self-awareness and avoid similar mistakes in the future.
1. Admit that you messed up
While this step might be the hardest, it is the most important for growth. Taking a moment to admit that, “No, I didn’t do that right / handle that well / say the right thing,” can be the difference between learning and growing versus ignoring and denying.
When you admit that you did wrong, you open yourself up to the possibility of learning how to do it right.
2. Take responsibility
If your mistake hurt another person, take that responsibility and apologize for any wrongdoing. Again, this can be challenging and humbling, but is a key factor in learning from your mistakes. If you don’t like apologizing for what you did and how you messed up, you won’t likely make that mistake again and again.
When you make a mistake, sometimes you can say “Oops,” and move on— but often it’s better to reflect on the mistake so it doesn’t happen again in the future. To reflect and learn, you might begin with asking yourself these questions:
- What went wrong?
- What could I have done differently?
- What have I learned?
- How am I going to take what I learned and apply it?
You can write these answers down in a journal, keep a sticky note next to your computer or mentally go through a similar list to help you reflect and grow from a mistake.
4. Have a plan
If you find yourself repeatedly struggling with something, instead of just hoping it will be better next time, take proactive action to help prevent it from happening again.
Perhaps you want to save money, but you stop for coffee every morning before work. Consider leaving your credit card at home so you can’t buy coffee even if you wanted (or throw your purse/wallet in the trunk if you need your card later).
Maybe you spend hours every evening watching TV, but would really like to use that time more productively. Consider scheduling those hours every evening:
- 5–6pm: Dinner
- 6–7pm: Work on completing a to-do list item
- 7–8pm: TV time
- 8–9pm: Reading/journaling
- 9–10pm: Bedtime routine
By sticking to this schedule, you can keep yourself disciplined and get out of a habit of making the same mistake (in this case, watching TV for hours).
Go easy on yourself
One sure way of preventing yourself from learning is by beating yourself up. We’re all human and to err is human. Sometimes we’re presented with extremely difficult situations and all we can do is our best. So when you mess it up, don’t scream at yourself. Remind yourself that while you are not perfect, you can still take what you’ve learned and apply it next time.
Reach out for help
If you find yourself trying again and again to overcome the same mistake with little success, odds are you’re going to feel discouraged. If this is the case, you might want to consider reaching out to a counselor, or someone qualified to help you work through past mistakes and overcome new ones.
If you need support dealing with mistakes, or want to come up with a better plan for your success, consider contacting Mazzitti & Sullivan. Our counselors are here to help. Reach us anytime by calling 800-809-2925.