“Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent.” – Billy Graham
How many times have you made a mistake and instantly remember you’ve made it before? Most people have this experience and recognize it when it becomes a pattern. If they fail to see the similarities between the current mistake and a past or previous one, however, they’re likely destined to repeat it multiple times. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can profit from mistakes — particularly ones that recur frequently — if you pay heed to how to keep from repeating mistakes.
What Science Says
Recent research published in the journal Memory on mistakes and learning from them reveals that if the mistake occurs while learning, it is possible to improve memory for the correct information. The key to improved learning is that the error or mistake must be close to the correct information, a so-called “near miss,” researchers said, saying further that errors that were “out in left field” don’t tend to learn the correct information as easily. Further research is planned with the hope of improving education for young adults as well as late-life learners.
Another study by University of California researchers that was published in Nature Communications found that even failure (making a mistake) can be perceived as rewarding, if the person making the mistake is given the opportunity to learn from it and assess options. They call this “punishment avoidance learning.” Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found that when subjects received enough information to be able to contextualize choices, their brains turned toward reinforcement mechanism, rather than avoidance. One of the study’s authors said that this is similar to what may happen when someone feels regret for doing something wrong and then may change his or her future behavior to incorporate the learning they received from their mistake.
For people with memory problems, such as dementia, and those with non-congenital brain damage, research by a neuropsychologist from Radboud University found that “errorless learning” or preventing mistakes is a better approach than “trial-and-error learning.” Since those who’ve experienced brain damage from strokes or accidents have difficulty implementing actions requiring steps and planning, breaking the target outcome into steps and providing detailed descriptions, examples and visual instructions, interspersed with significant pauses between each step, resulted in clear improvement. This is particularly successful in helping memory-impaired individuals relearn everyday tasks.
Another study by researchers at the University of Iowa found that older adults are less likely to realize they’ve made an error than younger people. Furthermore, older adults are more likely to be adamant they’ve not made an error, even when they have. Researchers found, however, that older adults performed tasks just as well as younger adults, albeit more slowly. Such research may help in developing ways for aging adults to learn how to recognize mistakes they’ve made and incorporate that learning into behavior.
In the work environment, research published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science recommended that managers make a diligent and conscious effort to let employees know the value of learning from mistakes. When an organization stresses continual learning as an important part of improving and changing existing practices, employees are more likely to be motivated by this learning approach and see mistakes as an opportunity, rather than failure.
Another study by Gabrielle Steurer and colleagues studied the climate of mathematics classrooms for “mistakes-friendly” and “mistakes-unfriendly” environments and found that students who perceived the classroom as mistakes friendly when they committed errors were more willing to increase the effort they put into their work.
Practical Tips to Avoid Repeating Mistakes
While science continues to plumb the reasons behind learning from mistakes, the rest of us are left with trying to successfully navigate our way through a history of personal mistakes and missteps and figure out effective ways to prevent or avoid them in the future. Here, then, are some practical tips that may prove helpful.
- Do an objective analysis. While the sting of a recent mistake may make objectivity difficult, it’s nevertheless important to separate emotion from fact. To see what happened and determine the cause of the mistake, write down everything you did on a step-by-step basis. This allows you to see what, when and where the mistake likely occurred. At the very least, it shows a timeline that provides insight that may be instrumental in not making the same mistake again.
- Ask others’ about their recollection or perception of the mistake. Why would you want to risk embarrassment or criticism by asking a friend, family member, colleague or loved one what they recall or thought about a mistake you made? For one thing, their perception is likely a bit different than yours about the event. They may be able to remember specific comments or body language where you exhibited stress, were uncertain or felt you needed to proceed despite lack of resources, support or other decision-making factors. Gather what you learn and set it aside to study later. There’s likely valuable information here you can use in avoiding/preventing a similar mistake again.
- Reframe the mistake in a positive outcome. Instead of feeling bad about the mistake, or being afraid as a result of making it, reframe it so that it becomes an opportunity, turning the mistake into a positive outcome. For example, if your marketing plan was a disaster, what results showed promise that you can capitalize on? Glimmers of consumer acceptance for certain product, service or offerings may be gleaned from comments, suggestions, interviews with focus groups, surveys and the like. Perhaps the target market could be better pinpointed, or the communications approach more narrowly focused, or the campaign timeline extended. Marketers who ignore lessons from mistakes will not profit from them, but those who do see the positive amidst the negative are more likely to realize eventual success.
- Keep a diary or journal. Notetaking isn’t just for students. Everyone can make use of a journaling technique to keep tabs on daily activities – including successes and mistakes. Note the specifics of mistakes and see what steps you took in arriving at that outcome. By examining the progression of your actions, you’ll be better able to see where you went off track or where you can make alterations, so the mistake doesn’t happen again. This is an example how you can see how to make mistakes work for you.
- Celebrate wins. Acknowledge when your learning from mistakes results in success the next time, or in a related or even unrelated task, endeavor or activity. It’s important to boost your self-confidence in knowing how to make appropriate decisions, to choose wisely and recognize the difference between similar options. Give yourself credit for advancing your problem-solving abilities that resulted from such self-learning. See the mistakes as risks that lead to success.