The power of mistakes
Updated: Jan 28
Mistakes are essential to personal growth. Often, what feels like our biggest challenges are actually our greatest opportunities. In this article, I reflect on some of the setbacks I faced – and share what I have learned from them.
We’re bombarded with mixed messages around the concept of mistake-making our entire lives. As children, we’re encouraged to play, be curious and explore – to discover and make mistakes along the way. Then, quite suddenly you’re sitting a test at school, and told by parents and teachers not to make any mistakes at all.
These days, workplaces emphasise ‘failing fast’ to hasten innovation. But what about the risk of making a mistake too big, and the potential consequence of losing your job? With corporate culture still so focused on short term results, the practical and psychological safety which enables people to push boundaries in the quest for innovation is often neglected.
So, it’s perhaps not surprising that we never really know where we stand with mistakes and feel uncomfortable about them. It is, however, essential that we try to normalise errors and realise that our most significant personal and professional growth is often rooted in working through the challenges that arise when things go wrong.
Broadly, there are three types of mistakes:
These occur in environments where things are operationally based or heavily reliant on systems – for example, manufacturing plants or hospitals. These kinds of mistakes should be avoidable. If they occur, it’s generally as a result of procedural failure.
This category includes events that transpire when something is occurring for the first time, or there are great changes happening in the way that things are done. If you’re experiencing something new or enacting radical change, inevitably there will be mistakes made. The key is realising they’re unavoidable and quickly recognising what you’re able to learn from them.
This encompasses the ‘fail fast’ approach. I studied IT at university, and it’s been fascinating watching the process evolve from methodical planning to rapid experimentation. Deliberate failure in the pursuit of knowledge is intelligent and can help drive results – as long as the environment allows for mistakes to be made safely.
There is an important watch-out here, though, and that’s the risk that people are working so quickly, that they’re moving on without taking the time to analyse the process or subsequent outcomes properly. This can lead to individuals or teams missing vital errors or conflating single learnings with overall results, which can be short-sighted – as well as problematic later.
The psychology of mistakes
Mistakes are a natural part of human endeavours. Everyone experiences them, so why can they feel so gut-wrenching when they occur? Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has researched these issues for many years and says, “studies with children and adults show that a large percentage cannot tolerate mistakes or setbacks.”
For adults, part of this response is because we invest so much time and energy into being right all the time. Then when things do go wrong, not only do we feel deflated, but we can also feel exposed. Failure is a potential threat to our sense of personal identity and the construct of ourselves that we’ve been presenting to the world. The associated fear can run much deeper than a bruised ego.
Fortunately, learning to fail is a skill and learning lessons from your mistakes is key to building your resilience. If you can overcome a perceived threat to your identity, then mistakes can become opportunities for personal growth. How you can achieve this is outlined beautifully by Deborah Grayson Riegel, and it boils down to three points.
1. Take responsibility
The first thing you need to do is admit that you’ve made an error. Apologise and acknowledge that you were wrong, then strive to avoid defensiveness.
2. Address what needs to be done now
In the immediate aftermath of a mistake, you need to be prepared to step up and take appropriate action to address the situation immediately. Part of that might mean taking on board the feedback from those who you’re apologising to, and demonstrating a humbleness and willingness to listen.
3. Share what you will do differently next time
This can come in the moment or after some reflection. But it’s vital to demonstrate that you’ve learnt from the situation by sharing how you would handle a similar one in the future. Part of that might involve asking people for feedback that you can use to formulate an appropriate plan.
Mistakes and growth mindset
If you’re able to approach mistake-making with a growth mindset, then you can embrace the inherent risk of failure as being essential to success. Think of scientists – often failures in research-driven fields lead to significant breakthroughs and discoveries. Remember, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin – the world’s first antibiotic – because he mistakenly left open a petri dish and exposed its contents to airborne spores of mould. Mistakes don’t always mean negative consequences! We just need to dissect them more like a scientist would, by removing the related emotions and not resorting to blame or shame. Instead, unpack your mistakes and really examine them. Investigate errors analytically and see what can be learned.
Useful questions to ask in the wake of a mistake
- Who can I ask for help?
- What was within my control?
- Is this a skill issue?
- Is this an experience issue?
- Did I miss any warning signs?
- Could I have avoided this?
- What sort of planning may have mitigated this?
- Were there external factors at play?
- If I could redo this moment, what would I do differently?
- What learnings in this would be useful to others?
Learning from my own mistakes
When I was a development aerial skiing athlete, there were four of us training together in the lead-up to the Nagano Olympics. By virtue of Australia holding the number one and two positions in the world, the national team were able to put forward a field of four athletes to compete in the world cup competitions. This gave us development athletes the chance to train with the full world cup field for a week. Then, the two who performed best would get to compete.
It was an incredible opportunity, and I desperately wanted to be picked. The night before the actual competition, a team meeting was held, and I was told that I would not be competing the next day – I hadn’t landed as many jumps as I should have. I was devastated. Following this news, I was asked to wait in the hallway while the remaining athletes were briefed. I remember sitting outside the door and bursting into tears. Meanwhile, our senior team athletes walked down the hall to join the meeting as I sobbed uncontrollably in front of them. In that moment, I swore that I’d never let that happen again.
This was a pivotal experience for me, one that changed the course of my life in sport. My error was twofold: First, trying to do jumps I wasn’t ready to land yet because I wanted to impress with degree of difficulty – rather than focusing on landings. I let ego get in the way of understanding what was the most important criteria for success. Second, I was overly desperate and let nerves get the better of my judgement and ability to perform. Even worse, when things didn’t start well I self-sabotaged further by letting anger enter the situation. As a result of that experience, I resolved that I would work so hard – mentally and physically – that I would never ever leave any doubt in the eyes of decision-makers that I was the most prepared person for the job – the most worthy of reward.
From that point on, I worked harder than anyone else on the development team. In the off-season, I read books on performance psychology and spent more time in the gym and putting in jump numbers than the other athletes – and my ranking lifted from last to first. By the time I made the national team, I could see that I really hadn’t been ready for the world cup prior to the Nagano Olympics.
Now I know, if you love learning and you recognise that mistakes are a core component of the process, then something like not getting picked for a team early in your career can be an absolute gift. It’s a common theme when athletes are reflecting on their careers, and it’s true for me, too. Fortunately, my desire to become my best self allowed me to gently identify my shortcomings and make a decision about where I wanted to go from there. That uncomfortable experience allowed me to discover what being prepared for success really looked like – which informs all elements of my life to this day.
Identifying ongoing mistakes
For many of us, there are mistakes that we consistently make. In these cases, it’s important to learn to manage them rather than attempting to ‘fix’ them. For example, if I’m offered an opportunity, I always want to embrace it, which generally results in a sacrifice of my personal or family time.
In the past, this has put me on the track to burnout. Now, I review what commitments and opportunities I have on a quarterly basis, and then ruthlessly prioritise. This way, I can rein things in and not end up grossly over-committed (and stressed). It’s not so much a matter of correcting a mistake as it is mitigating the potential results of making it. Again, this circles back to a love of learning and a passion for growth.
Fostering safe environments
As friends, parents, and colleagues we need to create environments where people feel fostered and safe enough to discover and work on their shortcomings as part of their personal and professional growth. It’s when people try to hide their errors that situations can become dangerous and huge insights are lost. We need to facilitate conversations around setbacks and mistakes and reassure everyone that they’re perfectly normal and bring value. Encouraging others – and ourselves – to search for lessons instead of fearing consequences is incredibly powerful. As Alexander Pope said, “To err is human,” and our humanity is worth embracing.
Originally published on www.onelife.aiavitality.com.au on September 16, 2019.
Alisa Camplin is an Olympic Gold Medalist, in-demand Keynote Speaker, Corporate Ambassador, and Human Performance Consultant who delivers results-driven Resilience and Human Performance Training and Development Programs. Connect with Alisa.