How to Learn From Mistakes

How to Learn From Mistakes

Discover why mistakes are important opportunities for learning and personal growth.

A mistake can be defined as behavior that results from an error in judgment, inadequate or inaccurate knowledge, or a lack of attention. Usually, a mistake is something that we later regret or that causes some amount of struggle, loss, or pain.

Mistakes are important because they help us learn and grow into better versions of ourselves when we respond to them effectively. Making mistakes is part of being human and it is something we can learn to embrace and use as a way to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Neuroscience research even suggests that mistakes are actually an important part of learning. For example, researchers have shown that when trying to get a mouse to associate the sound of a tone with a reward, the learning is faster and stronger when the mice predict a reward after a tone and are wrong from time to time (Watabe-Uchida et al., 2017).

This is because brains (both mouse brains and our brains) are set up to make predictions and then determine the accuracy of those predictions. When there is a discrepancy between the prediction and the outcome, our brains release molecules called neurotransmitters, which essentially send a signal saying “hey, something is off here, let’s remember that.” Our brains’ response to this discrepancy, also known as prediction error, is a powerful learning mechanism and is so reliable that it has become a central feature of neuroscientific models of learning and behavior.

Other neuroscientific models of learning – specifically those that pertain to learning a new motor skill such as tennis or roller skating – suggest that mistakes are important because they help narrow down the range of all possible movements to the ones that are correct. This is based on the idea that there are substantially more ways to get something wrong than to get something right. So, by making mistakes we are basically engaging in a process of elimination that will make getting it right easier down the line. This famous quote ascribed to Thomas Edison is a perfect summary of this line of thinking: “I haven’t failed, I’ve simply found 1000 ways that don’t work.”

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”
― John Dewey

How To Learn From Mistakes

Making mistakes is more than an inevitable part of life, it is an essential part of learning. In fact, some neuroscientists suggest that all learning occurs through mistakes (Chialvo & Bak, 1999). Learning occurs via plasticity, or the creation of new connections between brain cells. The stronger these connections become, the stronger our learning is. When you successfully try something new and it feels good, learning occurs. This is known as positive reinforcement.

Science shows us that learning can also occur through negative reinforcement. In other words, when you are unsuccessful and it feels bad, learning still occurs. Scientific models of learning through negative reinforcement show that negative reinforcement learning can be even stronger and more efficient than learning through positive reinforcement (Chialvo & Bak, 1999). This finding suggests that it is actually better to make mistakes than to get it right the first time. 

Despite its evident benefits for our learning, making mistakes doesn’t feel good and can sometimes have negative impacts on our self-efficacy and goal commitment. Given the downsides associated with making mistakes, there are a few tricks that we may need to employ to be able to fully benefit from them. These tricks include re-framing your mistake (also known as cognitive reappraisal), owning your mistake, and analyzing your mistake. Let’s dig a little more into each of these strategies.

Reframing Mistakes

Reframing your mistake refers to changing your perspective of what that mistake means in the broader context of your life. For example, let’s say you accidentally present incorrect information in an important meeting. Rather than beating yourself up for your mistake, you could reframe it as an experience in which you learned to double-check your sources and the accuracy of your information before your next meeting.

Owning Mistakes

We might feel compelled to shift blame to others for our mistakes to avoid feelings of shame and discomfort. However, shifting blame away from ourselves prevents us from gleaning the benefits mistakes have to offer. Truly learning from our mistakes requires us to examine where we went wrong, and what we could have done better so that we can avoid making the same mistake in the future.

Analyzing Mistakes

Analyzing our mistakes refers to asking ourselves questions about the mistake, its context, and what led up to it. For example, you might ask the following questions of yourself after making a mistake:

● What were my motivations?

● What was I attempting to achieve?

● Why did I choose the course of action that I chose?

● How might I ensure that I take the appropriate course of action in the future if a similar situation arises?

● What opportunities for personal growth does this mistake offer me?

Research has shown that asking these questions and comparing our answers against what we can retroactively identify as the correct course of action is a powerful learning tool (Loibl & Leuders, 2019).

In Sum

Try as we might, we will all make mistakes from time to time. Though some mistakes may be painful or costly, they aren’t necessarily bad because they provide us with the opportunity to learn and grow as individuals. Mistakes show us where we were ignorant or misguided. They allow us to see with more clarity the room we have to grow. In fact, neuroscience shows us that mistakes are something that we need in order to learn. Without them, we would be stagnant. When we accept our fallibility and recognize mistakes as learning opportunities we can embrace them with gratitude and move on with self-love and self-compassion.

References

● Chialvo, D. R., & Bak, P. (1999). Learning from mistakes. Neuroscience, 90(4), 1137-1148.

● Loibl, K., & Leuders, T. (2019). How to make failure productive: Fostering learning from errors through elaboration prompts. Learning and Instruction, 62, 1-10.

● Watabe-Uchida, M., Eshel, N., & Uchida, N. (2017). Neural circuitry of reward prediction error. Annual review of neuroscience, 40, 373