Learning from Costly Mistakes

Mistakes. We all make them. And, by and large, we all dread them. I get that. I hate making mistakes. They make me feel foolish and incompetent. They undermine my confidence and make it harder to reach my goals. They feel like setbacks, if not out and out failures. And sometimes those mistakes are costly or painful or both, to me and to others. Mistakes are therefore something to be avoided.

That’s the common narrative we tell ourselves about mistakes, and there is something deeply and obviously true about that story. But there’s another story as well. And that is that mistakes, if we pay attention to them, have a great deal to teach us. When we make a mistake, we have the opportunity to learn. As my daughter’s violin teacher used to tell her, “Mistakes are your friend.” Each mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow and is, in fact, essential to development.

Learning from our mistakes, however, is not guaranteed. That only happens when we are intentional. As another of our kids’ teachers told her students, “Make a mistake every day. Just don’t make the same one.”

All of this is easier to endorse, of course, when the mistakes we are talking about are relatively inconsequential. Hitting the wrong note while playing the violin is nothing like hitting another car when driving. But even in high stakes mistakes there is a great deal to learn. Perhaps, we might say, the potential and imperative to learn from larger mistakes is even higher because of the consequences.

One of the difficulties in learning from costly mistakes is the conflicting nature of the two stories we tell ourselves about mistakes in the first place. On the one hand, we know we can learn from them and know that we must if we are to improve. On the other hand, precisely because we see them as a sign of failure and incompetence, we are often too afraid or embarrassed to admit them and thereby forfeit the opportunity to learn from them. How then, do we cultivate an environment that recognizes the inevitability of mistakes – even costly mistakes – and out of a desire to lessen high stakes mistakes creates an environment where we can not only admit them but also discuss them, learn from them, and improve because of them?

All of these questions and more came to mind when I watched the following TED Talk by Dr. Brian Goldman, who early in his career made a tragic mistake and then committed himself to learning from it. It’s a revealing and inspiring Talk that invites us to think about creating safe places where we can learn better and faster from the mistakes we will inevitably make.

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