It’s often said that mistakes and failures are good because we learn from them.
This sentiment was beautifully articulated by Michael Jordan in this brief video. Jordan’s example is prime evidence of this timeless truth:
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” –Stephen McCranie
The mastery path is, to be sure, riddled with difficulties, false-starts, wrong turns, and even catastrophes. Those who strive for mastery must steadily learn from their mistakes.
So yes, mistakes can be a powerful learning tool. Unfortunately, most people, most of the time, don’t do what it takes to learn from their mistakes. We can learn from our mistakes, but we usually don’t.
The trouble is that many people have come to believe that we’ll automatically learn from our mistakes, but this simply isn’t true. If we automatically learned from our mistakes, then we wouldn’t repeat them. But, of course, we do repeat them.
I do, however, believe mistakes are good. I love mistakes because they kick the door to learning wide open. Mistakes prepare the brain to learn in a uniquely powerful way. Why? Because mistakes hurt.
The Value of Pain
The discomfort of being wrong convinces your brain to care. The brain doesn’t want to repeat the pain of being wrong, so it is willing to devote extra resources to figuring out whatever it is you’re struggling to learn. This is essentially the same as learning to ride a bicycle: Falling hurts, so your brain quickly and eagerly learns to balance the bike.
Discovering that you’ve made a mistake is unpleasant. It feels bad. It could mean that you got a low grade. It could mean you have misunderstood something and now have to change what you think. It could mean that you missed some critical piece of information and now have to go find it to fill the gap in your knowledge. It could mean that you have to start over and do a great deal more work.
Each of these is an unpleasant reality to confront. The human brain is programmed to avoid repeating unpleasant experiences, so the fact that mistakes feel bad is exactly what opens the door to learning.
But remember, the default setting of the brain is to forget, so you’ll have to convince your brain that the content isn’t going away by revisiting it. You have to reengage with the ideas that are hard for you. You have to reexamine the questions you missed. You have to keep trying. You have to get back on the bicycle.
In other words, we only learn from our mistakes if we do something about them, if we actively try to learn from them. This is just one more way that we need to be active agents in life.
The proper mindset is to treat them as a movie director would, as miss-takes.1 Did you screw up? Okay, try again. Better yet, review your notes and check in with the teacher, and then try again. Life gives us plenty of opportunities for do-overs.
The ability to treat mistakes as learning opportunities is a key part of having a growth mindset.2 A growth-minded student sees herself as a work in progress, which means mistakes aren’t a threat to her identity.2 A fixed-minded student, by contrast, sees herself as a finished product awaiting judgment, so mistakes are signs that she is permanently not good enough.2
Fixed-minded students find mistakes to be so upsetting that they don’t want to examine them, which is a necessary first step to learning from them.2 Growth-minded students have a strong enough sense of independent self-esteem to feel comfortable confronting their errors, which enables them to learn from mistakes.3
Learning from mistakes doesn’t happen automatically. You have to engage with whatever went wrong and figure out how to make it right. And to do so, you must simultaneously accept yourself and accept that you have failed.
Remember that failure is an action; it’s an event. It’s not a permanent identity. If you fail at something, it doesn’t make you “a failure.”
Mistake’s scary, older brother is Failure. Failures either result from major mistakes or a series of minor mistakes. Either way, the consequences are higher and the discomfort is greater. But this is a blessing in disguise. Because the pain of failure is greater, the opportunity for learning is also greater.
The approach to learning from failures differs slightly from that of learning from mistakes. Mistakes are usually about minor shortcomings or momentary slip-ups. Failures tend to arise from more foundational issues or they tend to have a relevant back-story. When we experience a large failure, that’s a sign that we need to take some time to reflect on not only the immediate causes, but also the root causes.
For example, if you fail to turn in a large project for a class that severely impacts your grade, we cannot attribute that to a single error or a single decision. There must have been many decisions during the month leading up to the due date that led to the failure. Perhaps there is an underlying issue with perfectionism or procrastination or time-management. Perhaps there is a lifestyle issue getting in the way, such as a video-game addiction.
The real lessons of this sort of failure are usually bigger than any one assignment or any one class. Thankfully, that means if you take the lessons to heart, you stand to benefit enormously for years to come.
We often gain a great deal of maturity through our struggles, which is why I recommend keeping track of the major failures you overcome in a journal. Not only does writing about the lessons help solidify them in your mind, but also, when it comes time to write a college entrance essay, you’ll be glad you have this bank of stories to draw upon.
Please Don’t be a Perfect Parent
Parents can, as always, help enormously by modeling the proper mindset about mistakes and failures by actively demonstrating how to learn from them. This is somewhat counterintuitive because, as a parent, you might be thinking that the best thing for you to be for your children is a role model of pure success, which would mean never making mistakes in front of your children and hiding your failures from them.
In reality, however, what children need most of all is to see examples of adults being gritty. Children need to see adults struggling but not giving up. They need to see you stumble, fall, and pick yourself back up. They need to see you falter, forget, and fail but then try again.
One of the most powerful things a parent can do is talk about their own shortcomings in a non-judgmental, curious manner. Openly examine your errors like a detective examines a crime scene and talk about what you’re learning from them. When children see adults approaching mistakes and failures in this way, they’re much more likely to learn from their own errors.
(Note: One common source of failure in adult life is willpower failure: falling off of your diet, skipping workouts, abandoning your New Year’s resolutions, etc. Click here to learn 4 ways to deal with willpower failures well.)
Failing to Learn
“Learn to fail or fail to learn. There is no other way.” –Tal Ben-Shahar3
It’s fundamentally okay to make a mistake. To err is human, after all. (Note: I originally wrote “The err is human,” accidentally proving my own point. Thanks for catching that Greg!) What is perhaps less acceptable is choosing, over and over again, not to face your mistakes head-on and learn from them.
This is the error of errors: the failure to learn how to use mistakes as learning opportunities. Please know that it’s never too late to learn from even this error. If you have been choosing not to learn from your mistakes, you can, at any moment, choose to change course. You’re human. You’re made for change.
The belief that mistakes are helpful can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you start to look for the lessons in your failures, you’ll start to see them. Then, if you choose to do something about them, you will learn from your mistakes.
Lastly, please consider this: If failure is the worst thing that can happen if you try, then really, learning is the worst thing that can happen. The only way you can really, truly fail, is to give up on yourself. True failure is avoiding all risk. True failure is quitting. It isn’t falling off the bike; it’s choosing to not get back on.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Beckwith, Michael Bernard. Spiritual Liberation: Fulfilling Your Soul’s Potential. Atria Books, 2009.
2 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
3 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.