How to learn from your mistakes

“Make mistakes, learn from them, move on”

“Don’t waste a good mistake, learn from it”

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

I think that’s enough of it. Since we grow up till we climb the ladder of society, our parents, teachers, and many successful life-achievers have given us the advice to “learn from our past mistakes”. It is a down-to-Earth piece of advice: learning from mistakes allows us to overcome hurdles that stymie our progress in the past and enables us to adapt better to changes in today’s ever-changing society. The pioneers of our time, such as Steve Jobs, one of the brightest mind in investing, Ray Dalio, and Nobel-prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman all share the traits of recovering from failures rapidly, and come back even stronger.

With this in mind, let’s be honest to ourselves: After hearing these quotes for so many times, how many times have we really managed to completely avoid ourselves from committing to the same mistakes again and eliminate bad habits that we used to possess?

If your answer is none, don’t worry, you are just like most of the people out there. Many of us took a long time, even years, just to recognise their mistakes. The fact that everyone tries to tell us the importance of learning from our own mistakes but not teaching us the way to correct ourselves make it so difficult for us to react to our mistakes efficiently. Fortunately, there are some tricks and solutions to address this ‘repeat-our-mistakes’ situation. The first step is of course to recognise your mistakes in an early stage right after you made a mistake

The willingness to find out mistakes

Many of us took ages just to recognise our mistakes because of the way how we view  mistakes and failures. We’re taught in school, in our families, or at work to feel guilty about failure and making mistakes is a shameful thing. An implied value in many cultures is that our work represents us: if you fail a test, then you are a failure. If you make a mistake then you are a mistake. Therefore, we dreaded mistakes. We will bend over backwards and go out of our way just to prove that we’re not wrong. Most people are willing to go that far and even cheat on themselves. To them, failures are too painful to bear, so the simplest way is to just distort reality so that they do not have to face the harsh truth.

Hence, we must change our traditional perception about mistakes and failures, so that we can get out of our comfort zone and stand up to the mistakes you’ve made. The famous Chinese proverb sums it up:

“Failure is the root of success”

Without failures and mistakes, there’s no way we are going to attain our goals in life, work, and relationship. Repeating the old mistakes we’ve done is shameful, but erring is not. On top of that, we should view mistakes as a golden opportunity for us to become wiser and better positioned to face uncertainties in the future. Once we view mistakes as a norm and are willing to open our heart to them, learning from mistakes is not that hard a thing anymore.

Identifying our Real mistakes

The next step to finding out our mistake is to expose our ideas and opinions to our peers or the public so that we can receive feedback from outsiders and get a more holistic view. The reason why exposure to the outside world is so crucial is because if we keep the idea to ourselves and never share it with other people, we will be biased to think that our idea or product is perfect and overestimate the feasibility of it (This situation is coined with the term ‘overconfidence bias’). For instance, if you keep dedicate your time to working on a flying car project in your own garage and never let it appear in the public’s sight, how would you know if people really like flying cars ?

Once we gain exposure and critical feedback from our peers, the public or the market, there comes the critical part: spotting possible mistakes from the feedback we received. The substantial quality that differentiates competent individuals from the crowd is their ability to adapt to feedbacks efficiently and recognising potential mistakes and blunders that may hinder their progress in the future. The only problem that lies in this method of detecting mistakes is that the mistake detected may be only the ‘surface’ and not the underlying mistake (root cause). This is where the 5-WHY analysis model comes into play.

The 5 Whys technique was developed and fine-tuned within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a critical component of its problem-solving training. It is a simple and straightforward analysis to discover the root cause of a problem by asking yourself ‘Why?’ on a particular question for five times. This explanation may be kind of abstract and I think a concrete example will do good. Consider the situation below:

A robot you’ve built has just broke down

Using the 5-WHYs technique:

Toyota 5 whys example

Aha! We then know that the underlying problem lies on the filter of the pump! Of course, this technique can not only be applied to engineering, but also in tracing mistakes we’ve committed in our decisions. Thus, after receiving feedbacks and using the 5-WHYs technique to find out our underlying mistake, all that is left to do is to refine ourselves and fine-tune our mistakes.

Please always keep in mind that mistakes aren’t meant to be shameful, they’re meant for self-improvement. As soon as you start blaming other people (or the universe itself), you distance yourself from any possible lesson. However, if  if you courageously stand up and honestly say “This is my mistake and I am responsible” the possibilities for learning will move towards you. Admission of a mistake, even if only privately to yourself, makes learning possible by moving the focus away from blame assignment and towards understanding.  Even wise people admit their mistakes, so why shouldn’t you ?



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