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Do We Really Learn From Our Mistakes Essay

Suppose that you’d like to make fewer mistakes. How do you go about actually learning from the ones you’ve already made, rather than repeating them?

The first step is to admit to yourself that you’ve made a mistake. Trivial errors, like accidentally putting the container of orange juice in the freezer, are easy enough to come to terms with. But for more serious matters, or matters that involve pride or shame, our minds often recoils at the pain caused by acknowledging we’ve screwed up. We make up excuses as to why it isn’t our fault, or pretend (even to ourselves) that it didn’t happen. But remember: refusing to accept that we’ve made a mistake frequently dooms us to making many more in the future. I find that reflecting on this fact helps me acknowledge my own mistakes. Another thing that can help is to remember that mistakes are not weird, they are the norm. The best among us still make them frequently.

Occasionally, noticing mistakes is enough to correct them, especially when they have immediate reinforcing consequences. Put your hand in a fire once, and it will be easy not to do it again. Get stung by bees enough times, and you’ll likely become more wary around bees. But if you don’t consciously reflect on what has happened, you may not learn all there is to be learned from your mistake. Worse still, many mistakes don’t lead to natural self correction.

Step two is to generalize from your mistakes so that you can see the pattern or principle underlying them. The lesson derived from the mistake of sticking your hand in fire shouldn’t just be to not stick your hand in fire, it ideally should include not sticking your hand in boiling water too. The principle to extract is that objects of high temperature can be dangerous to touch. If your friend is upset because you didn’t return his call for a month, the lesson to learn may not just be to return calls more quickly with this friend, or even just to return calls more quickly with all your friends. Considering this mistake in the context of your other mistakes, there may be something deeper that you should also learn. If you’re having trouble figuring out what, try discussing your mistakes with others whom you trust not to be judgemental. They may be able to offer a perspective that hasn’t occurred to you.

Step three is to develop a strategy to change your behavior. Just because you know that you should stop forgetting to pay your friend back for dinner doesn’t mean that you will stop forgetting. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you will start being more responsible in general when you owe something (even if you’ve made that mistake many times). What would stop your forgetting? Maybe emailing that friend right now to make lunch plans, and putting a reminder in your calendar software saying “bring the money you owe!”, set to go off just before you leave to meet that friend for lunch. Problem solved. How do you solve the more general problem of being bad about paying back what you owe? One approach that might help is to try to build a habit of always scheduling calendar reminders as soon as you borrow money to remind you (repeatedly is best) that you need to pay the money back. That way it is much harder to forget.

Step four is to review your big mistakes, as well as the principles you’ve extracted from them and the strategies you’ve developed to change your behavior. If you review these from time to time you’re much more likely to actually change. Just because you learned something from a mistake three months ago doesn’t mean you’re going to remember what you’ve learned three months from now. As unnatural a thing as it may seem to do, keeping a list which you review from time to time will dramatically magnify your ability to retain what you’ve learned.

So the next time you realize you may have made a mistake:

  1. Acknowledge it, if it was indeed a mistake. Otherwise you may be doomed to repeat it.
  2. See what useful principles you can learn from it, taking into account the context of the other mistakes you’ve made.
  3. Develop a strategy to change your behavior. Just willing yourself to do things differently next time often doesn’t work. Figure out what you can do now to alter your future behavior.
  4. Keep a list of your big mistakes and what you should learn from them. Review this from time to time (for instance, whenever you add a new mistake to the list).


The NYTimes reported a few years back on a Harvard Business School study of venture capital-backed entrepreneurs to test whether or not we learn from our mistakes. The results are confounding to many—including me.

Here’s the story. Several thousand VC-backed companies were studied over 17 years. First-timers had an aggregate success rate of 22% (success meaning going public).

The study is about those trying for a second time. Did the 78% who failed the first time learn from the experience, and do better the second time? Or worse? How did the 22% first-time winners fare—did they get lazy and decline? Or did they somehow do better the second time?

No less an expert than Gordon Moore, sainted ex-leader of Intel and the author of “Moore’s law,” said “You’re more valuable because of the experiences you’ve been through under failures.”

I’m with Gordon. But according to this data, we’re both wrong.

Those who succeeded the first time upped their success rate, to 34%. But those who failed the first time stayed mired in the muck, at 23%. So much for the myth of the gritty, plucky lads who pick themselves up and learn from their failures.

Apparently the data are not the problem: “the data are absolutely clear,” says Paul Gompers, one of the study’s authors. Yet it is still far from clear what the data mean.

As is often the case, data are one thing, and explanation another. Of course, the obvious explanation may be true: people just do not learn from adversity. This seems to be the study’s authors’ view—that the learn-from-failure ethos celebrated in Silicon Valley is really just anecdotal tales over-told.

Then again, maybe we actually do learn more from success than from failure. If so, perhaps that’s because of increased confidence resulting from one win.

Or, maybe only the really good people learn at all. And they can learn from experience alone, whether success or failure.

Or, perhaps these conclusions are only true of a certain type of person, characterized by some cross-cutting characteristic, such as risk tolerance. (Did you know height is correlated with IQ? True: short people score lower on the same IQ tests that tall people take. Of course, if you separate young children from the adults, or use age-normalized tests, the correlation goes away).

Or, to channel a recent 30 Rock storyline, maybe the first time winners are just very good-looking people who are actually horrible, but live in a bubble in which others let them pass. Hey, you never know!

Causal deductions are never fully provable—thanks, Dr. Hume. But progress can be made toward explanations.

So, what do you think’s going on?

And I’ll throw one idea into the ring, borrowed from Karl Popper, who developed the falsifiability theory of meaningfulness. A theory which is highly disprovable, but which remains standing, is superior to a hard-to-disprove theory.

Maybe people who fail have a much greater chance to learn. Why it is that they don’t still seems a mystery to me.

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