The Awesome Power of Mistakes

The following blog post was originally posted to LinkedIn on 16 May 2014.

Outside of my work I spend several hours each week volunteering as a teacher. I have some modest skills and experiences that people seem to be interested in learning about and developing themselves and that’s something that gives me great pride to be able to do. One of the most important lessons I try and teach my students is about the awesome power of mistakes.

As I’m sure most of you will have heard, mistakes are bad. We don’t like mistakes. We like success. We must learn from the mistakes of the past otherwise we will be doomed to repeat them in the future. Etc. For the most part I agree, but I don’t personally think it should be quite so clear cut.

Now whilst there are some mistakes that have lead to great steps forward, many of these were simply un-/fortunate accidents and so I’m going to set those aside from the discussion as outliers. Instead I want to focus on the more day to day mistakes that are based on decisions and actions rather than happenstance.

My basic principle is that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes and the failures occur due to mistakes that we make. If we are consistently succeeding then we have in effect reached a natural limit. There is simply no further room for improvement.

For example if you have memorised a set of multiplication tables that you will get little benefit from continuing to recite them as is other than to retain your level of knowledge through a simple process of repetition. Unless you challenge yourself you are highly unlikely to improve further. In this case the addition of new times tables, reciting them backwards (or alternate numbers) or even simply reciting them in a noisy and distracting environment could help to improve the skill … but there will almost certainly be mistakes on the way.

Now so far this doesn’t contradict the earlier statements. But what if I were to suggest making a mistake on purpose so that you don’t succeed? Does that sound logical? Sometimes by actually intentionally failing at some point in a process we can develop new ideas and skills and gain new experience that allow us to succeed using a different method. These are often the most valuable lessons to learn.

As an example let us say that you are a formula 1 racing car driver who always qualifies with a time that puts you at the front of the starting grid. You are a fantastically good at stopping others from passing you and so you win every race. However because you always start at the front and stay there you simply don’t get much practice at over taking other cars in race circumstances. Next time you qualify you decide to do so such that you place further back in the grid. Whilst there’s a good chance you may not win, you can improve your over taking skills. The trick of course is to try and make this deliberate qualifying mistake at a time where coming in first place is not critical. If you don’t make the opportunity to do this sooner then at some point you may find the skill lacking when you most need it.

At the end of the day, mistakes are simply the scenario in which a decision and or action was taken such that the result did not match the criteria for success. By applying changes to the scenario or directly to your early decisions and actions you can use the awesome power of mistakes to build skills and experiences to find greater success down the road.

The only question now is what mistakes are you going to make today and which ones are on purpose?

CC Image courtesy of Alex E. Proimos on Flickr.

Author: Stephen Millard
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