Learning the art of making mistakes

January 27, 2022 - 11 min read

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What are mistakes? Why are they associated with failure?

Are there any benefits to making mistakes?

Why is it important to see mistakes as learning experiences?

Being compassionate toward oneself after making a mistake

Making mistakes is a guarantee in life. You can’t avoid them entirely, no matter what you do. What matters more than any blunder or its magnitude is your response afterward. 

Most, if not all, of your mistakes, can be excellent learning opportunities. In fact, learning from failure is often the key to success. By getting things wrong, you’ll improve your skills and grow in various ways. 

If you’re learning, you won't go wrong. 

It's important to be willing to make mistakes. The worst thing that can happen is you become memorable.

Sara Blakely, Founder and CEO of Spanx

What are mistakes? Why are they associated with failure?

A mistake is an error in judgment, misunderstanding, or misguided action. You won’t always have poor intentions when making mistakes — in fact, many mistakes are accidents. They can occur because you simply didn’t know better, whether in your personal or professional life.

Alternatively, failure usually comes from a lack of success, or an inability to meet expectations. Everyone’s definition of failure is different. 

Several consecutive mistakes could lead to failure, but the terms aren’t synonymous. Fear of failure is natural. But since humans aren’t perfect, errors are inevitable, and both mistakes and failure are great learning experiences. 

What matters most is what we take away from our mistakes, and how we learn not to make them again.

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Are there any benefits to making mistakes?

Though it may not seem so, making mistakes always has benefits. But this is only the case if you follow these steps after an error: 

1. Acknowledge mistakes

The first step to achieving growth is admitting when you’ve done wrong. Don’t try to cover it up, deny it, or push it aside. Doing so will only make things worse, increase your stress, and in some cases, damage your reputation. 

If you need to apologize to someone, apologize. 

Think of the biggest mistake you’ve ever made. Does anyone remember it? Did you learn something from it? Honesty and ownership are acts of courage. People will remember your bravery and grace over your accidents or clumsiness.

2. Reframe and analyze the mistake

Changing your perspective is the second step to the learning process. Putting in a dedicated effort to step back from the situation will help you see the bigger picture and increase your resilience. This is important for personal and professional development alike.

Ask yourself the following questions: What was I trying to do? What went wrong? When did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong? 

Any life lessons, and insight into how to avoid repeating the same mistake, are somewhere in the answers.

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3. Ask yourself the hard questions

Self-reflection is difficult but crucial to the learning journey. Similar to ownership, you can’t take steps to change things if you don’t know what you did. Take the time to consider what led up to the mistake, including errors you made along the way. 

4. Put the lessons you've learned into practice

Introspection is healthy, but it can only get you so far. Eventually, you’ll have to take action to ensure you grow as a person. 

Take what you’ve learned from your mistake and adjust accordingly.  That may mean improving your communication skills, or putting in place strategies so you don’t lose track of time or neglect important details. 

Practice makes perfect. The more frequently you train your mind and body to think and react in a certain way, the quicker the improvement. 

5. Review your progress

Two good ways of tracking your progress include carving out time to evaluate yourself or asking a trusted family member, friend, or colleague to act as an accountability partner. 

Having another uninvolved person in the issue can offer an objective perspective and usually a clearer, more positive opinion about your personal development. This person can help you stay on the right track, and encourage you along the way.

Coaches can also play the role of an accountability partner.

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6. Recognize that it's okay to feel vulnerable

When we make mistakes, we tend to feel discouraged and vulnerable. That’s normal, and that’s okay. Only when we are willing to be open-minded to these feelings can we improve and help others do the same. 

7. Remember that we can't avoid making mistakes

Change is perhaps one of the only constant things about our world. Everything around us — technology, our careers, where we live, whom we love, and what we value — is constantly shifting. 

Change leads to unfamiliar territory, and with unfamiliar territory comes mistakes. It’s impossible to anticipate everything that will happen; all we can do is try our best, ask for help, and support others. Rest assured, you aren’t alone in whatever it is you're dealing with. 

Why is it important to see mistakes as learning experiences?

We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Life is hard. But with the lows come the highs, and your situation will get better. 

If you or someone you know is feeling down, try reading the following inspirational quotations. They’re guaranteed to put a smile on your face and give you the spark you need to gather all you’ve learned and keep going. 

  1. "Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” - Walt Disney

  2. "Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are." - Oprah Winfrey

  3. “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” - Elbert Hubbard

  4. “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect... Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.” - Stephen Hawking

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Being compassionate toward oneself after making a mistake

It can be challenging to maintain a positive outlook, especially when we get caught up in the torrent of daily life. We all have bad days or bad weeks. Don’t be afraid to mess up. It is part of building and fine-tuning your mental fitness to become the best version of yourself. 

How you see yourself and view your actions is a significant aspect of handling any errors you make. Your mindset is everything. 

It may seem small, but showing compassion toward yourself does wonders for your self-esteem. 

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BetterUp was created precisely for that purpose: to empower and guide you through life’s tough spots. Whether you’re looking to assert yourself more, fine-tune your career and leadership skills, or take steps to change your perspective, we are here to help you find the transformative power within yourself to do so.

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Published January 27, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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