Learning to make mistakes

We all make mistakes. Can we properly learn from our mistakes? Maybe. There are some tips that can help. You can find more
here, here, here, and here. This time you should really read the resources I mention.

Classification of mistakes

There is no clear classification of mistakes except for legal mistakes. In legal documentss, the mistakes are divided into:

  • Mistakes by law. For example, a person does not understand the laws that apply in a given situation.
  • Bilateral mistakes by fact. If nobody knew the right facts, it’s nobodies’ fault. In agreements, the contract may be annulled.
  • Unilateral mistakes by fact. This means a person did not get the facts right. Basically, it is his fault.

In real life there is no clear classification, we can use the following arbitrary division:

  • Risking on purpose. Occasionally we simply take chance, step out of our comfort zone, do something with an unknown outcome. We know we will make mistakes and occasionally fail, but we estimate the value of experience and possible rewards higher than the value of risk. On average, if many people take such chances, the expectation of the reward should be very high. Typically we are encouraged to take such chances since they generate high value for the society.
  • Negligence. We may fail due to lack of knowledge, attention or skill. These mistakes are highly avoidable by vigilance, learning, training and using peer advice. The cost is not only in direct results of each such mistake but also the risk to our prestige. When I was playing chess, I used to make such mistakes for the first four years of practice, but eventually learned to avoid them unless under extreme pressure of time. Athletes and doctors learn how to avoid such mistakes in split-second decisions, using some protocols and guidelines. When there is no time to think and there are no guidelines to apply we will all make this sort of mistakes.
  • Lapse of judgment. Usually, we have enough time to think, know the relevant information and guidelines, have the relevant skills and take everything into account. Still, we make mistakes. This sort of mistakes can be very strategic to the course of our lives and very costly for us. We tend to have regrets afterwards. This is also the best mistakes to learn from.

What can we do in each case?

Taking educated risks

It is OK to take risks as a part of personal growth. For my personal use, I developed several guidelines that help minimize such risks and maximize the rewards.

  • Be prepared to fail. Do not risk if the failure will bankrupt you in any way: financially, morally, emotionally.
  • If you fail, be prepared to learn from the failure and try again. It is very hard to face rejection repeatedly, yet some paths offer no remedies. An aspiring actor will face many rejections. An author will be rejected by publishers, entrepreneurs will be rejected by investors etc.
  • Each time you try, do not lose enthusiasm. It is only natural that each time we fail we will get more indifferent. We do need to be fully engaged to succeed. So each time we try we should be sure we will succeed this time. Enthusiasm and the amount of investment each time we try should grow. At the same time, we should not wait for the results and look for the next opportunity. This is very hard and requires very special mindset.
  • Exploit the experience. Whether we succeed or fail, we generate experience. This experience may teach us about ourselves, about others and about life. What we learn about ourselves helps identify areas of improvements and get better. What we learn about others helps adapt and apply the right message for each situation. Then there are more generic lessons about life, which cannot be easily translated into action items but are valuable for us as human beings.

There are many coaching techniques for getting out of our comfort zone. It is important to focus not on the results of each attempt, but on making each attempt truly count. While this is hard for mission-oriented people, mindfulness approach definitely helps. People who practice meditation, empathy and compassion are less focused on their own success and more resilient to try. On the dark end of the spectrum, narcissists are so sure in themselves they will not be afraid to try. Extremely successful people can often be classified as extremely mindful and extremely narcissistic.

The rewards should outweigh the risks. Most people would think twice before risking, a small percentage of people will gamble. In highly emotional stage most people will gamble and only few will stay disciplined. Disciplined people are usually very successful. People who are addicted to risks have very interesting lives, with very few things to show at the end of the life.

Education, training, awareness

We can reduce negligence in many ways. This is the type of mistakes we should be able to avoid. Here are just some examples of what can and should be done:

  • Practice. If we lack context, learning is not effective. We can practice in controlled conditions with a low price of failure. When we practice we understand which aspects require more attention and we are more prepared in real situations. Some skills can be learned only by practice.
  • Learn. There are many formal ways to learn: paid classes, online video courses, training resources and textbooks of all kinds. We can find coaches and mentors for almost any subject we can think of. Learning takes time and can be expensive, failures can be even more expensive. This is simply weighing the price of learning vs the price of failing.
  • Situational awareness training. We can train situational awareness by getting immediate feedback each time we lose focus. Some people learn juggling: each time you lose focus a ball will fall. We can play “hidden object” or “spot the difference” games. The training may be very specific. There are very different forms of training for combat needs, group dynamics, medical professions.
  • Mindfulness training. Quite often we need to be aware not only of the situation but also of ourselves. Public speaking is one such use case. We need to be mindful of our body, breath, emotions, habits. It may be easier to be mindful when we practice yoga than when we are working. Some behaviors need to be learned and over learned to the level of automatism, so we may focus on more complex tasks.
  • Protocols and guidelines. In medical profession and some other critical skills, there are protocols guiding our behavior in each situation. People who develop protocols consider the previous experience, past failures, and creative solutions, to provide some framework for split-second decision making. When we follow protocols, we can focus on situational awareness instead of each decision we need to make. If the situation changes, we can simply switch between the appropriate protocols. In programming, the guidelines that reduce cognitive load are called design patterns. If we are professional, we need to know the relevant protocols and guidelines in great detail and intimately.
  • Simulations. We can test all of our skills in carefully constructed simulations. Some simulations are visualizations we play with ourselves, other simulations are mimicking real environments. Only when we ace the simulations we are ready to deal with the real thing.

Probably every reader of this post has experienced all of the methods discussed. Education and awareness do not come cheap, and often we fail to allocate the required resources or fail to learn properly. It is possible to learn how to improve learning efficiency: read faster, remember more, stay focused, have a good plan, train more effectively. There will always be things we simply forgot to learn due to unavailability of resources, prioritization, lapses in preparation or our poor judgment.

Dealing with bad choices

Through the last decades, there has been a constant increase in the amount of homework and examinations. Students get quantitative evaluations of their skills. Do they learn better or are they trained to score higher in the exams?

People are prone to bad judgment. We can learn a lot but for the wrong reasons, ace practice and fail the real deal. If we check everything we do, we may skip just one thing and fail. When there are several strategies available, we may choose the wrong one. We may lose patience and act impulsively or emotionally. How do we deal with bad choices? The following suggestions are based on how people deal with bad choices in the military.

  • Damage control. Limit the exposure to the damage. Some people may choose to increase the risk in “double or nothing” fashion. This strategy may work most of the time, but if it fails the failure is catastrophic. It is easier to deal with many small failures than with one failure of gigantic proportions. So damage control is probably the best tactical response.
  • Regrouping. It is further important that previous failure does not influence the chance of future success. Any crisis means not only dangers but also opportunities. We need to make the changes required so that we are in the best possible position to take advantage of these opportunities.
  • Analysis. We need to understand the nature of the mistake. Probably we will not be able to judge correctly using our own tools. Quite often we will need some new perspectives to find what went wrong. We can use our friends, experts, historical analysis of similar situations.
  • New guidelines. The output of our analysis would include new guidelines that minimize our future mistakes. Maybe a decision to take some new course, or a protocol of a specific behavior, or simply a reminder not to skip crucial steps in our current process.
  • Blame. Some people are simply not suitable to do specific tasks. We may realize toxic people and behaviors, we may need a sponsor to share the risks or a contractor to do the job. The blame should be a call for a productive action and not a cause for depression or personal vendetta.

Our bad choices can have a traumatic psychological effect, or they can motivate a welcome change. Not always our automatic response is the best one. Good leaders learn from mistakes, and leadership skills may be acquired.

Can we build our own luck?

Some people are lucky. Yet there is an expression “luck favors the prepared”. We can build our luck by learning, and we can also improve our chances by better control of the process.

  • Ownership. Take the ownership of the process, try to limit the aspects you do not control. Do not pass the responsibility to others unless you are sure they will handle the task.
  • Process. Do not act impulsively. Build well structured processes. Divide each task into milestones and organize plans.
  • Challange. Try to get into the “flow” state. Increase the challenge to the level which is both manageable and exciting. We tend to ignore the boring tasks, so if the challenge is very low the risk is actually higher.
  • Long-term. Prepare for the long-term commitment. Short-term tasks generate stupid mistakes. We are too willing to “cut corners” and neglect to check rare scenarios.
  • Risk. It is good to take risks that we can afford, do things differently. Some risks are just too costly and should be avoided.

Fail differently

A stupid person repeats his mistakes, a wise will fail each time differently. Creativity opens up new possibilities each time we fail. Some of these possibilities result in further failures, others may result in huge success. More importantly, creativity allows us to stay enthusiastic each time we fail since we can try something new. Creativity will eventually pay off.


Take educated risks and learn from mistakes. Be disciplined and committed to proper processes. You can make your own luck.

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