Still Life

A Series of Mental Snapshots

Demystifying What We Learn From Our Mistakes

Posted by Steve on September 11, 2008

I am sure everyone has heard the saying ‘You learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successess’ at some point in time in their lives and because it is so commonly said, I accepted it as a fact for the longest time, until quite recently. The phrase came up when I was at an info session for a company looking to hire full time new grads. The presenter was saying how the company did not mind if you made some mistakes, because of course you learn more from your mistakes than your successes, right? In my opinion this is not so, I think you just learn different things from your mistakes than successes and I will try to illustrate that with a few examples.

The Soccer Example
In this example, we will consider the success, scoring a goal, and the failure, not scoring a goal. When you score the goal, you have learned something very important, if I make a shot similar to this in the future, it is likely that it will go in. From the failure, not scoring, you learn what shots are not effective. In this situation I would argue the success is more meaningful, as I think that there are close to an infinite number of ways you can not score, and a finite number of ways that you can.

A Past Success
One of my past successes is that I was admitted into Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo; it is considered to be one of the more difficult programs to get admitted to at UW. This success came from working hard in school, and always looking ahead to what I needed to do to get admitted into the program, it was my number one priority. From the success I learned that if I hold something as very high priority and work towards achieving it, I can.

A Past Failure
One of my past failures would be the grades I received in one of my past school terms; they were much lower than my expectations, and I was very disappointed with what had occurred. It was very clear what caused this failure, my priorities were out of sync, and I put a difficult relationship as my top priority. From this I learned that it is important to step back and reassess priorities if things are not going well, and that more reflection is a helpful thing.

From the failure and the success I feel as though I have learned about an equal amount, just in a different manner. In both cases I look back and say how did I get to the end result, and for the success, I want to repeat those steps, and the failure I want to modify them. One reason I might see people thinking they learn more from failures is because people focus on them more than successes. If as much time was spent thinking about how you were succesful, I feel that you would get even more out of them than the failures.

So give it try, reflect equally on a failure and success, and try to assess which one teaches you more.

–Steve

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