How To Gain Strength From Actively Studying Your Mistakes

21 February 2012, by A. Cedilla

It’s quite hard to get out of the mindset that mistakes are bad, bad things, isn’t it?

Making mistakes seems to be a sign of being less — that you aren’t as smart as you should be, or could’ve been, that you just weren’t good enough. That if you had just tried harder, thought a little bit faster, predicted the future a bit more accurately, this would all have been avoided. The carrot of supposedly attainable perfection is held permanently beyond your reach, and you snipe yourself into a sad mess because you just–couldn’t–reach–it.

Seeing that our educational system trains us to follow the rules as part of the socialization process, it’s almost unthinkable to flout the unspoken one that mistakes “are something to be avoided,” — but then, we often learn more from the mistakes we’ve made than many of our successes. If you live a life geared towards avoiding mistakes, how much will you actually learn? For that matter, how much will you actually live?

What are the most common factors that contribute to making mistakes?

  • Process issue – You understood how things “have always been done this way,” and when another method is introduced, they clash. In the time it takes a while for the new picture to resolve itself clearly, the field is open for errors to introduce themselves.
  • Data issues – Inaccurate information is shared or relayed, or accurate information is given too late. In cases where ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing” the result is a badly joined execution of conflicting ideas.
  • Understanding – Information is misinterpreted or skewed by personal bias and experience to mean one thing when the other party meant another.
  • Human error – Forgetfulness, lack of focus and attention, a bad mood, being stressed, being hungry and/or tired, not being ready to absorb the information, etc.

Other things contribute to the likelihood of errors: lack of exposure, lack of experience, a dearth of contextual data, muzzy priorities… Making a mistake doesn’t mean you are a mistake, or a bad person, or lesser. These attitudes are spill-over from your care-taker’s personal issues, spill-over which you were exposed to while growing up. At the most basic level, experiences are the raw material that make up your life. And making mistakes are just part of the human experience.

Maybe as a kid you were too young to fully understand some of the knowledge being thrown at you, and the expectation that you would immediately “get it” made it even harder to learn.

Different people learn through different ways and at different speeds, when you keep comparing yourself to faster learners, you end up feeling that you’re holding the short end of the stick. You grow up carrying the feeling from this, that can make you risk averse in the fear of making mistakes.

Question one: As a rule, do you try to learn from your mistakes, or do you try to forget them as soon as possible?
Question two: Looking back on incidents which led to life lessons, which ones stick out as being more educational when you really think about it?

Alright then. Notice the trends in your life – where you are at your happiest, where you are at your most stressed or miserable, what makes you glow with accomplishment, or hang your face in shame — all these things have in common is you. YOU are the one who experienced them, and so you are the one tasked to examine them for their commonalities.

Like the countless episodes of an NCIS or CSI investigation, where finding the bodies and readying them for examination leads to an inquiry, finding the common links would point towards the perpetrator – who in this case is you.

You’re at the heart of it and the eye of the storm — going back to the yin-yang symbol, you act in the world, the world acts on you, you both carry pieces of the other inside you. And while the world has been around for a very long time, you are always learning. The question is, are you learning anything new? And do you grow from it? Making a mistake is a misstep…repeating a mistake means you didn’t learn, or aren’t willing to.

One’s mindset also has a very big influence here — and mind-blindness of your personal contributions to your successes and failures is never good. If you don’t take notice of your mistakes and how you figure in them, how will you learn? The very old issue associated with making mistakes is thinking that because of making them, you are a mistake. All of you. And that’s just plain wrong.

Mistakes are encounters with the unknown. The more you familiarize yourself with the unknown, the more comfortable you are with navigating uncertainty. You learn. You grow stronger recognizing and accepting that mistakes are part of learning what it means to be human.

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