Learning from our mistakes - the key to personal development

It is said that once you have reached the age of 13 we learn more from our mistakes than any other way! This seems harsh and discredits all our efforts to learn through typical academic and training methods. But there is an element of truth in the statement in that some of our most difficult lessons, and certainly those that stick in my memory, do seem to come about through making mistakes and then what happens afterwards.

From both personal experience and watching, teaching and managing others, people fall into two camps - those who ignore the mistake and carry on as if nothing has happened and those who acknowledge it, think about it and learn from what happened.

I learnt this valuable lesson many years ago when I was working for the newly appointed CEO of our company who was renowned for his bad temper (and shouting!!). I was working for him in an interim role, covering for the job holder who was on extended leave. I had taken over responsibility for the final stage of a marketing project and as I had not checked things throughly during the handover a mistake was made in a very important letter that went out from the CEO. 

I had already resigned from my job and was working my notice prior to going abroad, so a colleague suggested that I should just keep quiet - but I knew it would have repercussions for the CEO and thought he should be forewarned. So, with a deep breath I walked into his office and told him what had happened. I watched him turn red, clench his jaw and turn away. I held my breath and waited (as did my colleague in the outer office). Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime he turned round and thanked me for letting me know! I walked out of the office, legs shaking, and sat down at my desk in amazement.

Later that day he asked to see me. He told me that he was very angry about the mistake but he knew that it took a lot of nerve to tell him especially as I wouldn’t actually be there ‘when the s**t hit the fan’ (his words!). He went on to say that it was a great strength to be able to admit to a mistake and that I had earned his respect. I never forgot that day - or that lesson.

It is no easier today to admit to a mistake but I did learn that the discomfort at admitting a mistake is far, far less than the discomfort we experience worrying about it - and I have never forgotten it.

I was recently reminded of this experience in podcast by Dan Pink where he interviewed Tina Seelig about her Failure Resume. Tina lectures students at Stanford University and is the executive director of the Standford Technology Ventures Program. Here Tina’s explains this powerful tool:

I require my students to write a failure résumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.

However, after they finish their résumé, they realize that viewing their experiences through the lens of failure forced them to come to terms with the mistakes they have made along the way and to extract important lessons from them. In fact, as the years go by, many former students continue to keep their failure résumé up-to-date, in parallel with their traditional résumé of successes.

A failure resume is a quick way to demonstrate that failure is an important part of our learning process, especially when you’re stretching your abilities, doing things the first time, or taking risks. We hire people who have experience not just because of their successes but also because of their failures.

Failures increase the chance that you won’t make the same mistake again. Failures are also a sign that you have taken on challenges that expand your skills. In fact, many successful people believe that if you aren’t failing sometimes then you aren’t taking enough risks. Additionally, it is pretty clear that the ratio of our successes and failure is pretty constant. So, if you want more successes, you are going to have to tolerate more failure along the way.

If you want to find out more you can read about this in her book ”What I wish I knew when I was 20” by Harper Collins (ISBN 978-0-06-204741-0).

So the next time you make a mistake - acknowledge it, reflect on it and learn.