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We all make mistakes. If you’re going to follow your passion, try something new, or simply to make new friends, you’re going to find yourself doing something you wish you hadn’t.
Everyone knows that if you’re going to learn how to skateboard, you’re going to fall off more than a few times before becoming a pro.
We can’t avoid making mistakes, but we can learn from them. While painful at the time, understanding how they occurred and what you’re going to do next turns an uncomfortable truth into a positive life lesson.
That’s why we’ve put together a 7-step plan, to help you pick yourself up and become the best version of yourself, not in spite of your mistakes, but because of them…
Why Should You Learn From Your Mistakes?
If you’re like me, when you think about being successful, you envision reaching your final goal – crossing the finish line, getting the promotion, signing the closing papers for your new house… However, the process leading up to these moments is easily overlooked.
Change usually occurs after a mistake is made. There is a transformative process that takes place as you move forward towards your goal, that has to involve at least some errors.
The hardest part here is learning to take responsibility and embrace the chaos that is an important part of making progress. If you can accept this, you will be better equipped to learn from your mistakes and move towards success.
Life experience is the best teacher you can have for making decisions. Experience can come from; mistakes, miscommunication, confusion, oversight, and anything else that leads you to make an adjustment in your life.
Mistakes often serve as motivation to learn, too. After making a mistake, you are more likely to be open to feedback. This can serve as a rude awakening that your method is not the only way of doing things. Despite the pain, you will (hopefully!) become more receptive to new ideas out of necessity.
Studies have actually shown that we have an “error memory”, which reminds us to perform motor tasks differently in the future after making a mistake.
Your mind develops its memories through trial and error and positive reinforcement. The Herzfeld et al. study demonstrates that learning from your mistakes is an automatic process that takes place when we practice a movement. They found that making mistakes allows us to learn faster than before in similar environments.
This may be why, even from an early age, teachers are now encouraging students to make mistakes and experience rejection. This builds resilience and gives the children a stronger sense of motivation to succeed. They experiment more and are able to make new discoveries in the face of their failure.
As adults, we also need to be able to take risks and be willing to make mistakes as we work towards success. Taking responsibility for your mistakes is an imperative part of learning from them. As soon as you can accept them and hold yourself accountable, the learning process begins.
Sometimes you may need to go through a difficult situation several times before you recognise the problem and understand how to deal with it. And that’s ok. Even if you make the same mistake more than once, in the end you will have improved your ability to deal with similar situations in the future.
So, now the question is:
How do you learn from mistakes?
1. Acknowledge Your Mistakes
This is probably the hardest step.
It’s important to remember, that just because you made a mistake, doesn’t mean that your whole life is a mistake. It doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for you.
If you’re avoiding acknowledging something you regret, it’s because you think it defines you right now – it doesn’t.
No one is perfect and if you’re making mistakes, it also means that you’re learning and growing, which is really brave, and in the end puts you ahead of the game.
Action Item: List all of the things that you feel you’ve messed up in the past (or recently) on a sheet of paper. Next add on an affirmative phrase such as “and that’s ok”. (E.g. I forgot to attend that really important meeting… because I’m human.)
Allowing yourself to acknowledge the imperfections in your life and to reframe them with the second phrase can be cathartic and interrupts old thinking patterns that are no longer serving you.
2. Have Compassion for Yourself
Don’t beat yourself up over making a mistake. Instead, show yourself some compassion.
Studies have found that having compassionate acceptance of your own mistakes can boost your determination to reach your goals.
It’s true that lying on the couch all day watching television won’t help you finish that big work project. But ruminating over it doesn’t help, either. Take the chance to let go of your poor choices, offer yourself compassion, and consider what made you waste your day in the first place:
Having a bit of compassion for yourself will help you to make the best out of the situation and use it to benefit you in the future.
Action Item: Try mirror work. Spend ten minutes a day looking at yourself in the mirror, and saying “I forgive myself for…” in order to move past any regret and hurt you’re holding on to.
3. Ask Yourself the Hard Questions
Understanding why something happened means looking at the way your actions led to a mistake, and your contribution to the outcome.
This isn’t about blaming yourself, it’s about learning how you can avoid the same thing happening and notice the signs before the ball even gets rolling.
You can ask yourself:
Writing down or saying out loud the answers to these questions might be challenging. But understanding what happened in detail will help you to own your mistake and avoid it happening again in the future.
Having examined them, you might even see your mistakes as a good thing; they’re proof that you’re improving and getting closer to where you want to go.
Action Item: Write down all of your thoughts about the mistake. Write for at least half an hour to release any negative emotions about the event and to process it in a new light.
4. Build a Growth Mindset
Shame can be hard to get over, because when you’re feeling shame, you don’t say to yourself, “I made a mistake”, you say “I am a mistake”. This mindset stops you from learning and blocks solutions, because we often don’t believe that things can get better at that point.
A growth mindset is developed when you believe you can change for the better. It’s the opposite of shame, which implies you are a bad person and you will never change, no matter how hard you try.
Once you’re able to accept that it’s okay that you messed up, having a growth mindset allows you to continue pursuing your goals with confidence. Having failed in some sense means that you’re closer to your goal now than you were before you made the mistake.
You’ve learnt a valuable lesson that will help you get to where you need to go and you’re always growing and getting better as a result.
Action Item: Make a list of all the things you’ve learnt from this experience that are positive and will help you to move towards your goal. Add to the list things that you’re excited to learn about in the future.
5. Create an Action Plan
As you’re thinking about how you can improve in the future, make a specific plan that will prevent you from repeating a mistake. Think about what led to this mistake early on. Be as detailed as you can, but stay flexible while you’re implementing the plan.
At first, you want to make sure you know how you would avoid making the same mistake in the future. For example, if you always end up with the same toxic partner, understanding why this happens and how to avoid it in the future, can help.
You might notice that you only call your ex when you’re feeling lonely or down, so perhaps you need to find another way of dealing with these emotions. If he/she calls you, then you make sure you know exactly what you’re going to say, so you don’t get persuaded back into the relationship.
If you’re concerned about repeating the same mistakes in a different relationship, you make sure that you are looking out for any red flags that you disregarded the first time around.
You can then plan what you would like to happen instead (e.g. finding a healthy relationship with someone who cares for you deeply).
Creating a plan may involve finding an accountability partner or using an app to track your habits – but no matter what, it has to be an effective way to hold yourself responsible.
Action Item: Create an ‘if-then’ plan to set yourself up for success. Think of all the ways your plan could go wrong, and work out how you would handle each in advance. That way you will be confident your plan will work.
6. Make it Difficult to Mess Up
Let’s say that you’re trying to get intothe habit of running. Your alarm goes off every morning at 5:30 and every single morning you want to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.
This is obviously a mistake if you’re trying to become a runner. You have to stop making excuses if you want to see results.
But don’t depend solely on your willpower to prevent you from taking shortcuts or succumbing to instant gratification. Instead, increase your chances of success by making it difficult to make a mistake.
For example, set your running clothes out the night before – or, better yet – sleep in your running clothes. Have your water bottle already in the fridge and ready to go in the morning and your running shoes set out by the door.
Being this prepared will help motivate you to get out of bed, because you have already put in some effort to prepare for your morning run.
Action Item: Just remember that, no matter how hard it is to change a behavior or a habit, there is a moment for everyone where the decision is made to either do it, or to not do it.
Essentially, you want to make the first 20 seconds of any new habit as easy as you possibly can.
Check out the video for more tips on streamlining your new plan:
7. Teach Other People
This principle is how every Ted Talk ever began. Someone messes up and then realizes the wisdom they have been gifted with, and shares it with the group. Teaching others can make all of the pain you went through worthwhile – whether helping other people going through the same struggles, or helping people to avoid the problem altogether.
Learning by teaching has also been proven to be very effective. You reaffirm what you already know when you help other people to learn from your mistakes.
This step is only to be taken once you’ve integrated the lessons you learnt along the way completely and have seen a positive change in your life because of them.
Action Item: Repeat the positive actions that have helped you to improve your life and avoid the mistake you made in the future. Consider posting a vlog, writing an article, or volunteering to share your new found knowledge and skills.
Final Thoughts on Learning from Mistakes
While you can’t change the mistakes that you have made, you can choose how you respond to them. It is important to recognize that mistakes are inevitable and living by trial and error is part of our natural evolution.
Growth starts as soon as you recognize and admit your mistake and make an effort to resolve what went wrong. Once you can acknowledge your shortcomings and overcome obstacles, you will be moving directly towards your goal.
Follow these 7 steps to learn from mistakes and grow as a person. When you start looking at your errors as opportunities for growth, you will see them as a necessary learning experience that led you towards success.
Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.