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5 Strategies to Learn From Your Mistakes (and Learn the Most)

by Ali

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We all make mistakes. But how we respond to our mistakes dictates our success and happiness levels. Sure, we can wither and shrink in response to an error and promise ourselves never to put ourselves at risk again. Or, we can take in the learnings from the situation and not let it deter us. 

When we make mistakes, it can feel disheartening and disparaging. Some mistakes cost lives. There will always be failings in this complicated world. But if we don’t learn from them, we add insult to injury. Make your mistakes, and then make damn sure you do everything you can to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

This article will illustrate what it means to make mistakes and what happens if we don’t learn from them. It will provide 5 suggestions to help you learn from your mistakes.

What does it mean to make a mistake?  

A mistake is doing something that we did not intend to do. It may also be an omission of action. And it can be doing something and getting a result we didn’t intend to get. 

To err is human, to forgive divine.

Alexander Pope

Here’s an example:

In 1987, a roll-on-roll-off ferry called MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized just after loading full of cars and passengers. The incident took the lives of 193 people. 

The reason for this catastrophic incident is human error; it is a mistake that should never have happened. But it did happen, and we must learn from it. 

The assistant boatswain was asleep in his cabin when he should have ensured the bow door was closed and watertight. Instead, the ferry started her journey with the bow door open, causing water to enter and sink the ferry. 

But it wasn’t just the boatswain who was blamed. His supervisors were held accountable for poor systems and communication. 

As far as mistakes go, this is enormous. 

What happens if we don’t learn from our mistakes?  

The example of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise brought about system and procedural changes, including a tickbox list of safety checks required to be satisfied before commencing any journey. 

Any large-scale failings result in an inquiry. It is the responsibility of the inquiry to provide suggestions for modifications to prevent history from repeating itself. 

Look around you; without the human ability to learn from mistakes, much of the world as you know it wouldn’t exist. 

Consider the Dyson vacuum cleaner, invented by James Dyson. It took him 5,127 prototypes to develop his first bagless vacuum cleaner. For each prototype, he learned from previous mistakes. He endured this process of learning thousands of times until he achieved success. Dyson is now a huge business with over 4,000 employees. 

For a child to learn to walk, they must fall, pick themselves back up and keep trying until they can walk unaided. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we will never walk. 

Very simply, if we don’t learn from our mistakes, we don’t grow. We don’t progress and develop new skills. And in the worst-case scenario, this will cost lives.

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5 ways to learn from your mistakes

They say practice makes perfect. And practice makes perfect because it allows us to highlight our mistakes and improve upon them until they no longer exist. 

Here are 5 ways to help you learn from your mistakes. 

1. Learn to recognize when to quit

It takes enormous mental strength, awareness, and clarity to know when something isn’t working and walk away. 

If James Dyson had quit at prototype 5,126, he would never have realized his potential and changed the vacuum cleaning world. 

But how do we know when something is worth persevering or when to box it up and store it in the attic? 

After making numerous mistakes and trying to learn from them, when do we move on? It is difficult to discern when to quit, yet it applies to many areas of our life. 

  • Leave a romantic relationship. 
  • Untangle from unhealthy friendships. 
  • Leave our job. 
  • Move house. 
  • Stop persevering with a hobby or interest. 

Suppose you have tried to improve a situation, including using communication to improve upon past mistakes. It may now be time to remove yourself from the situation and close the door. 

Life is too short to be anything other than happy!

2. Reframe mistakes as learning opportunities 

Many of us are ashamed of our mistakes.

Historically this shame has been particularly prevalent in the medical industry, where near misses went underreported

But when everyone accepts that mistakes are going to happen and we encourage a culture of openness and honesty, we learn to reframe mistakes as something to work from instead of something to hide. 

When I first joined the Police Force, my tutor told me, “you will make mistakes; the important thing is you don’t try to cover them up.” 

This advice is possibly some of the best advice I’ve received. Own your mistakes as soon as you are aware of them. This admittance allows you to minimize any repercussions. 

3. Don’t allow rumination to prevent you from moving forward 

It’s easy to dwell on our mistakes. 

But when we dwell on something we’ve done wrong, we don’t give energy to all the possibilities of things we can do right. 

Do you think James Dyson ruminated over each failed prototype? Hell no, he identified the mistakes and set to work to rectify these mistakes and improve upon his last efforts. 

As we’ve said before in our article on rumination, If we allow rumination to grip us, it may drag us into depression. By all means, take some time to reflect and be mindful. But then recognize the mistake and focus your energy on the solution, not the mistake. 

4. Practice acceptance and grace

Right now, I’m kicking myself that I mistakenly chucked out the collector tray for my printer. Of course, I will be a lot more careful when I take out my trash from now on. But what is done is done. I need to accept this mistake and forgive myself for my stupidity. 

I was watching the British gameshow, The Chase, earlier. A contestant knew the correct answer but pressed the wrong button by mistake, costing her the chance to win thousands of pounds. That has to string! It will take her time to accept this and give herself the grace to be kind to herself. 

Suppose you find yourself speaking harshly to yourself over a mistake. Remember that the only way to move on and learn from it is to find acceptance. 

5. Don’t allow fear of mistakes to relegate you to your comfort zone

Unfortunately, the fear of making mistakes or something going wrong keeps many of us small. It is what keeps us within the confines of our comfort zone.

We daren’t even try to color in, in case we color outside the lines. But how will we fine-tune our coloring skills if we don’t even practice and permit ourselves to make mistakes? 

In my running training, I’ve made many mistakes with nutrition and gear, which have either stopped a training session or made me underperform. But I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t made these mistakes. And if I don’t learn, how can I put these experiences into practice on race day? 

Often we have a safe space for making mistakes. 

Olympic athletes can make all their mistakes in training to be as close to perfection as possible on race day. 

As a running coach, I celebrate when my athletes make mistakes. Their mistakes allow them to grow in wisdom and learn from experience.

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Wrapping up

We all make mistakes; such is life. The successful souls among us are the ones who can learn from their mistakes and see them as an opportunity for learning and growth. 

Remember our 5 tips to help you learn from your mistakes: 

  • Learn to recognize when to quit. 
  • Reframe mistakes as learning opportunities. 
  • Don’t allow rumination to prevent you from moving forward. 
  • Practice acceptance and grace. 
  • Don’t allow fear of mistakes to relegate you to your comfort zone. 

Have you recently had to learn from a mistake? How did you do this? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Ali Hall AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Kindness is my superpower. Dogs and nature are my oxygen. Psychology with Sports science graduate. Scottish born and bred. I’ve worked and traveled all over the world. Find me running long distances on the hills and trails.

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