Three Ways to Learn From Mistakes

Three Ways to Learn From Mistakes

There are three ways to learn from mistakes.  The best and easiest way is to learn from other’s mistakes.  The second is to learn from our own mistakes.  And the most painful way is to not learn from our mistakes.  And, of course, the irony is that we all we eventually do.  It’s just a lot more painful.

I have made more mistakes than I would ever want to admit.  Mistakes in business, mistakes in relationships, mistakes as a father, as a friend…  Wow, just writing this makes my stomach churn as I think of the mistakes I have made.

But I have also done a lot of things right.  In fact, I would gladly say I have done a lot more “right” than “wrong”.  And one reason is that I have learned from mistakes and not repeated them.  And better yet, I have learned from other’s mistakes, and not committed them the first time.

Advice #1:  Learn from other’s mistakes

How do you learn from other people’s mistakes?  Let me offer several examples:

Find a mentor or coach

One of the primary roles of a mentor or coach is to help their mentees in not making mistakes.  Recently I had a person I was coaching that was distraught over the relationship with their boss.  I asked him some questions and helped him articulate his concerns.  I encouraged him to come up with a logical response to his boss so that he could present a cogent rebuttal to her demands.  Unfortunately, about 30 minutes later he sent me an email copying what he had sent her.  It was anything BUT what I had coached him to do.  A few days later, as things were heating up with his boss, he called me with another email he was about to send.  I had him read it aloud to me.  Then I did something I normally don’t do as a coach.  I said, “DON’T HIT SEND”…  It would have been a career limiting move for him to hit send.  I explained how I had made that mistake a few times in my career (hitting send too soon).  I reminded him of the mistake he had made the week before, and how sometimes it’s best to let some time pass before we respond.

Fortunately, he didn’t hit send.  He sat down with his boss the next week and shared some of the things from his email.  While it did not go perfectly, it did go much better than it would have.  By sharing my pain from the past, I was able to stop him from making yet another blunder.

Find peer mentors or accountability partners

Similar to mentors and coaches, we can often find peer mentors (managers at the same level in our organization or another one).  Accountability partners can be used to double-check something we are thinking of doing.  Using them as a sounding board.  I have found partners like this in trade organizations.  Sometimes I may find a person in a similar role at another company (that doesn’t compete with me).  I find that these create symbiotic relationships that can last for years.  We often deal with the same challenges, and bouncing ideas off of each other gives us a vehicle for coming up with creative ways to tackle problems.

Advice #2:  Learn from your own mistakes

Learning from our mistakes can be painful, and expensive.  Last week I was driving in the dark, early in the morning during a heavy downpour.  Visibility was low.  I knew the road where I was going and felt confident.  But suddenly I realized that I had drifted a little to the left and saw the curb of the median ahead.  That mistake did quite a bit of damage to my car and will impact my pocketbook pretty dearly.

We have mistakes like this at work as well.  I have made mistakes with customers, with bosses.  I’ve even made choices in my career that took me on detours that didn’t work out the way I planned.  But when I look back on those, I can always find lessons learned from my mistakes.  Sometimes I get upset with myself because looking back, I should have seen them coming.  But other times I would not have seen them coming in any case.  In those cases I find the most to learn.

In those cases, I ask myself, what questions I should have asked.  How could I have reduced the risk in the decision?  Is there any person I should have consulted with to get another opinion?

Learning from our own mistakes is difficult.  But wear those mistakes like a badge of honor.  Use them in as part of your life story.  Take the initiative and have the courage to share those mistakes. Use them in demonstrating how you have developed yourself as a professional and as a human being that learns from their mistakes.  After all, who would you rather work with, a person who thinks they are perfect, or someone who has learned from their mistakes and will thus make fewer in the future?  (Because we will never be 100% mistake-free).

Advice #3:  Don’t make the mistake of not learning from your mistakes

This might sound like a double-negative or a redundant statement.  But here’s the point.  If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are bound to repeat them.  And one thing I can guarantee.  The pain of making a mistake is only made worse when you make it a second time.  And, I believe the pain grows exponentially.  In other words, I believe the second time the pain is not the same as it was the first time, but at least twice as bad, because you knew better.  And you KNOW that you knew better.

Why do people not learn from their mistakes?  Most often I believe it is pride.  I had a boss once that always wanted to be in meetings with big clients.  When he was in the room, things seldom went well.  He dominated the conversation and often never allowed us to get to why we were meeting.  It frustrated the client and it frustrated me.  I would tell him later what went wrong with the meeting and he never believed me.  In fact, he was convinced that the meeting went great (even though the client would never take a meeting with him again).

Pride is a killer in so many ways. Low emotional intelligence (EQ) is another.  People with high EQ are able to recognize mistakes in themselves and in their relationships.  And, because of their high EQ, they are able to adjust and make corrections either as they are happening, or at least the next time faced with the same situation.

Hire a coach

Yes, there are three ways to learn From mistakes.  So, hire a business or executive coach to work with you to help you develop the skills needed to recognize mistakes and learn from them.  A coach brings a third party perspective and helps you learn from your own mistakes.  Contact me if you’d like to find out more.