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How to Learn From Mistakes: 8 Steps to Follow

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    Have you ever made a mistake that had serious consequences for your life? What about a smaller mistake that ended up harmless, but still causes you embarrassment to think about?

    Everyone has regrets, and everyone’s made mistakes. Whether those were related to work, your personal life, or your basic judgment, some mistakes might feel like they haunt you. But not every mistake needs to be a completely negative thing. In fact, when you learn from mistakes, you can experience great personal growth.

    "Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations."

    When I was younger, I felt like I was constantly making mistakes. What was worse, I found myself repeating the same mistakes. Some of these were minor things, like missing the same note in a scale on the piano. Some were major, like repeating relationship mistakes that I knew were bad for me.

    But regardless of the type of mistake, this remained true: When I stepped back and took the time to learn from mistakes, I stopped repeating my patterns.

    Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned. Avoiding and rationalizing mistakes will just cause them to repeat. You have to face the issue head on to put it behind you. That’s how I’ve designed my personal system for how to learn from mistakes.

    Why Failure Is Critical to Be Successful in Life

    You weren’t born knowing everything you know now, were you?

    And you didn’t become knowledgeable in your field without needing to learn, right?

    You’re expected to make mistakes when you’re learning and growing. No one knows everything when they first start out. When you start working with a new software, applying a new concept, or getting used to a new workplace, there’s always going to be a learning curve.

    It would feel great if you got everything right on the first try. But it wouldn’t actually be great. Because if you don’t make any mistakes, you’ll never know what you’re doing right, either!

    Failure is critical for life success. When you fail, you get a chance to learn from mistakes and do better in the future. You learn more about who you are, who those around you are, and how the world works. You become stronger. Getting the chance to learn from mistakes means getting the chance to find better solutions.

    Let’s consider a very basic example: a baby learning to walk.

    First, the baby learns to roll over, and then to crawl. They’ve been exploring their mobility in many ways before they even get as far as walking. All of these processes come with dozens of failures. Throughout the process, the baby’s brain is hardwired to learn from mistakes so that their next attempt is closer to success.

    With walking, the baby puts together a lot of complex processes. There’s balancing, muscle strength, forward motion, and equilibrium, just to name a few. Any number of things can go wrong. When a baby tumbles, that’s how they learn from mistakes. They keep going over and over until they’ve learned enough to walk without assistance.

    If the baby gave up after the first tumble or two rather than deciding to learn from mistakes, they’d never reach their goal. The same is true if you give up on any goal after making a few mistakes.

    How to Learn From Mistakes

    Why It Is Important to Learn from Mistakes

    It’s obviously important to learn from mistakes when you’re honing a new skill. That’s how you get better at it. With every new attempt, you get closer to achieving your goal, even if it takes a while to work perfectly.

    But why else is it important to learn from mistakes?

    Sometimes your mistakes won’t have anything to do with a repetitive skill set you’re learning. If you miss the same note over and over when you play piano scales, you need to practice until you’re not making the mistake anymore. But what about singular mistakes? Maybe you misread a memo that will only be relevant once, or you make a poor judgment call in a high-pressure circumstance.

    Why should you work to learn from mistakes like this?

    There are a few reasons.

    One is that even if you can’t change or fix what happened in the past, you can use the skills you learn from mistakes for future situations.

    Maybe you misread a memo and caused confusion in scheduling or project requirements or expectations. Whether this had significant consequences or not, you can apply the situation to your memory. The lesson seems obvious: Read things carefully before acting on them.

    But that’s a low reach. Most people in this situation will say, “I’ll be more attentive in the future,” and then forget about it.

    What’s more important to learn from mistakes is to figure out why the mistake was made.

    Maybe it’s something as simple as not getting enough sleep the night before. If that’s the case, you should sleep more instead of telling yourself to be more attentive. Maybe your email layout makes it hard to absorb information. In that case, an effective solution is to copy the email into another space and make the text easier to read by changing the font or size.

    These are actionable solutions to a problem that you wouldn’t have known about if you hadn’t decided to learn from your mistakes.

    What Are the Benefits of Making Mistakes?

    One of the most insidious traps we fall into is believing that mistakes are the worst possible outcome. We think that a person who makes a lot of mistakes is incompetent or useless. We think that people with more measurable accuracy in their performance are automatically smarter, more skilled, and better equipped for the world.

    If you go through life terrified of making mistakes, you’ll also be terrified of taking risks. You’ll never challenge yourself for fear of not being perfect.

    So if you want to become the most well-rounded, dynamic person that you can be, you need to let go of that fear. Mistakes aren’t inherently bad. In fact, mistakes have both immediate and long-term benefits.

    The next time you’re afraid of failure, remember these benefits of mistakes:

    • Understanding where you are in relation to your goal

    • Being able to chart steps to meet your goal

    • Understanding more about your situation

    • Identifying experts around you who can help teach you

    • Taking personal responsibility and showing you’re able to grow

    • Getting to learn, change, and challenge yourself

    • Applying solutions to future endeavors

    Being right isn’t the most important thing. Having an open mind and being flexible enough to grow is.

    How to Learn from Your Mistakes

    This is the simple system I’ve developed to address my mistakes and learn from them. The way you do each step will vary depending on the type of mistake and the impact it had.

    1. Become aware of your mistake.

    2. Determine the cause of the mistake.

    3. Ask yourself the hard questions.

    4. Listen to feedback.

    5. Come up with a plan.

    6. Create strong routines.

    7. Teach your lessons to other people.

    8. Expand your mindset.

    1. Become aware of your mistake

    This may sound obvious, but it’s actually one of the most difficult parts. Why? Because we have a hard time facing our imperfections.

    When we make mistakes, it’s common to feel defensive or guilty. We lash out, look for other people to blame, or minimize the impact. We make it about how we’re not “bad,” really.

    That’s why you have to kill the idea that mistakes are bad. When you make a mistake, practice saying, “Okay. This was an error on my part. It could have been avoided, but it wasn’t. Now I need to handle it and figure out how to do better in the future.”

    2. Determine the cause of the mistake

    Again, you might find that tendency to blame others rearing its ugly head. But that’s not helpful. When you determine the cause, you’re looking for things you can change.

    Maybe your friend kept you up late talking on the phone so you didn’t get enough sleep. But you chose to talk on the phone.

    Maybe your boss sent an unclear email. But you didn’t ask for clarification.

    Maybe you thought you’d read the email clearly. Maybe the fault truly does lie with your boss. But even here, you aren’t helpless. You can adjust how you interact with your boss in the future to avoid miscommunications happening again.

    3. Ask yourself the hard questions

    What stands in the way of you accomplishing your goal? Anything that slows you down or prevents you from making progress towards that goal is an obstacle.

    And they can be physical obstacles, mental blocks, emotional pitfalls, or family barriers.

    You’ve admitted you were wrong and isolated the pieces within your control. Now you need to address some tough questions:

    • What consequences does this mistake have for my immediate future?
    • How has the mistake negatively impacted those around me?
    • Are there any ways to fix the mistake?
    • If not, can I mitigate the damage?
    • Am I the only one at fault for what happened?
    • If other people are also at fault, how can I reach out to them so it doesn’t happen again?

    4. Listen to feedback

    The feedback you get varies by the situation. It might come from your boss, coworkers, friends, family, or even strangers.

    Don’t think of criticism as an attack or as proof of your shortcomings. When you’re criticized, that means you’re being given an opportunity to improve. Take people’s observations into account.

    Sometimes they’ll have suggestions for how to avoid repeating the mistake in the future. Sometimes they’ll just be pointing out the consequences of a mistake. Everything tells you important information about how to address the situation.

    5. Come up with a plan

    The plan you use will also vary based on the complexity of the situation. As a general rule, your plan should address:

    • How to fix the mistake or mitigate its consequences to the best of your ability
    • How to communicate with those affected by the mistake
    • How to address and eliminate the root cause of the mistake
    • How to take responsibility with the people in your life
    • How to stay accountable

    6. Create strong routines

    Strong routines are vital for organization, and they’re essential for performance-based mistakes. If you keep making the same mistake with your software or your telephone script, you need to practice. Practicing and forming new habits both happen through strong routines.

    Routines also let you streamline your troubleshooting process for mistakes. It gets easier to identify the cause and create a plan with practice.

    7. Teach your lessons to other people

    When you’re learning from mistakes, they don’t always need to be your own. You can learn from the mistakes of others. And others can learn from you.

    Maybe you’ve come up with a great system for how to read emails without missing information. Maybe you have a mental trick to remember a complicated coding issue. The solutions that you create can help others. Try teaching them if you see them making the same mistakes you used to.

    Think about the experts you respect and the things they teach. How many of their tricks do you think they learned through their own trial and error?

    8. Expand your mindset

    As we get older, we start to “settle” into our thoughts. It becomes harder to challenge our preconceptions and learn new things.

    That’s why you should make an active effort to expand your mindset. Never think of yourself as someone who’s done growing. Instead, think of yourself as someone who has constantly evolving potential. Tell yourself that tomorrow you’ll know something you didn’t know today. Then, at the end of the day, find something you know now that you didn’t know yesterday.

    Final Thoughts

    Rather than getting trapped in our old habits and growing stagnant, we could be open to the opportunities we’re given to learn from mistakes.

    Learning to recognize and accept your mistakes is the most important step. From there, you can determine how to learn from mistakes in a way that will make you a stronger, more well-rounded person. This technique can be applied to all kinds of mistakes, from technical skills to various interpersonal problems.

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