Don’t avoid mistakes; learn from them

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” ― George Bernard Shaw

The worst thing we can do with mistakes is avoid them. Life is trial and error. We cannot make progress without making mistakes.

Archie Cochrane understood this as well as anybody.

The Scottish doctor wanted to test out where the best place was for patients to recover from heart attacks. Should they recover in a specialized cardiac unit in the hospital? Or should they recover at home?

Of course, the doctors in the cardiac unit tried to shut his experiment down. However, Archie continued until he collected some preliminary results.

“I was wrong, and you are right,” Dr. Cochrane surprised his colleagues, “It is dangerous for patients to recover from heart attacks at home. They should be in a hospital.”

His words caused an uproar. The doctors demanded that he shut down the experiment at once and accused Cochrane of killing patients.

Archie waited until everyone calmed down.

And then he revealed a secret: he had swapped the table of results. It turned out that hospitals were killing more people. Patients should recover at home.

“Would you like to close down the trial now? Or should we wait until we have robust results?” Cochrane added as everyone looked at him in silence.

The father of evidence-based medicine understood the power of trial and error. But he also knew that most of us are mistake intolerant. We don’t like to admit being wrong.

That’s why Archie challenged his colleague’s fallibility. Learning through trial and error is not just about trying new things; we must first recognize our faults.

Overcoming the God Complex

Most organizations suffer from mistake intolerance.

Failure bears a lasting stigma in the business world. Leaders who do not fail are not taking enough risks. They’d prefer to look perfect than fall from grace for trying new things.

The God Complex is a belief that inflates our ability, privilege, and infallibility. It limits our capacity to solve problems. We think we know all the answers.

As Tim Harford explains in his TED talk, companies look for “little gods” to solve complex problems. Instead, he makes a case for establishing systematic processes of trial and error.

The God Complex creates a tense relationship with failure. We don’t want to admit errors, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. And we get stuck doing nothing.

That’s what happened to Dr. Cochrane’s colleagues. Dogma tainted their views; they saw their personal opinions as unquestionably correct.

In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Harford encourages us to abandon this illusion. Instead, use humility as a problem-solving technique.

“We have no idea why a certain thing will work. No idea at all. But the moment you step back from the God Complex and you say ‘let’s just try a bunch of stuff’, ‘let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not’, you can solve your problem.”

What’s your mistake mindset? There are two.

The desire to play safe develops mistake-intolerance.

Our society emphasizes instant gratification over patience, perseverance, and hard work. We educate children to know the right answer, not to discover it.

There’s no gain without pain. By avoiding mistakes, schools train students to adopt the safe strategy.

People fall into two camps when it comes to mistakes. They dismiss them or learn from them.

Studies found that people who think intelligence is malleable see mistakes as a wake-up call. They say things like, “When the going gets tough, I put in more effort.” They try to learn from mistakes and figure things out.

Conversely, people who think they can’t get smarter fail to see mistakes as growth opportunities. They do their best to ignore them. “Forget this. I’ll never be good at it!” they say.

“By paying attention to mistakes, we invest more time and effort to correct them,” says study author Jason Moser. “The result is that you make the mistake work for you.”

This problem starts in school. It becomes worse as we grow up. Being mistake-intolerant hinders our resilience. Students don’t bother to try harder after failing.

Social pressure decreases our mistake-tolerance.

A study on childhood social anxiety shows that when others notice their mistakes, kids become even more anxious.

Children with low self-esteem are worse at coping with their mistakes. They use failure to devaluate themselves. “See, I told you I couldn’t do anything right!” is how children with low self-esteem respond.

Instead of looking at the error as an opportunity to learn, they interpret it as a reason to quit. They don’t want to keep trying and err.

What’s your error mindset?

Avoiding errors is a big mistake

Error avoidance is the rule in most American classrooms. However, most studies show that it’s counterproductive. Making mistakes and then getting corrective feedback is more beneficial.

When we make errors with high-confidence, we correct them more readily.

Corrective feedback is crucial. It helps us understand why we made a mistake and the reasoning that led to it.

As Virginia Postrel said, “Progress through trial and error depends not only on making trials, but on recognizing errors.”

Teachers get valuable insights from mistakes, too.

Error tolerance increases participation, exploration, and curiosity. It’s more valuable to encourage students to make mistakes than to avoid them at all costs.

That’s what James Stigler found out when trying to understand why Japanese students were beating Americans at math.

By the fifth grade, the lowest-scoring Japanese classroom was outperforming the highest-scoring American one.

Although they were many reasons, the most salient one was the teaching method.

In American culture, mistakes are associated with being weak or stupid. However, Japan doesn’t share that same phobia. They encourage kids to make mistakes.

Instead of teachers explaining how things work, Japanese students are encouraged to first solve problems on their own.

Only after (several failed) attempts, the teacher intervenes. The whole classroom engages in discussing the failed attempts. Everyone learns from what didn’t work.

As Stigler recalls, “Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake. Whereas in Japan, mistakes, error, confusion are all just a natural part of the learning process”

Japanese teachers are mistake tolerant.

They don’t expect students to find the process of learning easy, but to make mistakes. The struggle to find a solution becomes crucial to learning.

Becoming mistake tolerant is not easy. But what happens when you get it wrong?

Your memory gets a boost when you make mistakes. A study shows that when people make a guess and fail, once they get feedback on the right answer, they are significantly more likely to remember it.

Even if you make a random guess that you know is wrong, you’ll still remember the right answer next time.

Increase your mistake tolerance

1. Embrace a trial and error approach

In the workplace, people are often afraid to make mistakes. They feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit they did something wrong.

Leaders don’t want to be perceived as weak. Thus, they have this overwhelming belief that they are infallible and stop exploring.

As Albert Einstein said, “The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas.”

Professor Steve Jones explains how Unilever designed the perfect nozzle for a detergent factory.

By applying a trial and error approach, the company created 10 random variations. All were tested. The best ones inspired new variations – which were tested again.

After 45 generations of variation and selection, Unilever finally found the perfect nozzle. It functions brilliantly, but no one has any idea why.

2. Own Your mistakes

Too many children and adults suffer from perfectionism. When a mistake happens, they get paralyzed. Many try to hide it. Most feel devastated.

Owning your mistakes will make you more tolerant. It’s a reminder that no one is perfect; it will make you kinder toward yourself and others.

Tim Fargo wrote, “Never give up your right to be wrong, and be sure to give others that right too.”

If you are a parent, own your mistakes in front of your children. If you are a manager, celebrate your errors with your team. Not only will it help neutralize the God Complex; it will also invite others to acknowledge their own.

You can’t learn until you admit you made a mistake. Perfectionism is the enemy of innovation and personal growth.

3. Reframe your mistakes

How you approach your errors defines whether they become a lesson or just a negative experience.

Everyone fails even if they don’t recognize it. Those who are mistake intolerant lie instead of facing their errors. However, when you reframe mistakes into a lesson, they become an opportunity for tremendous growth.

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt

Remember the two mindsets. You can dismiss your mistakes or learn from them.

When was the last time you made a mistake? What were you trying to do? What went wrong? Why? What will you do differently next time?

4. Label the mistake, not yourself

The most harmful part of making mistakes is not to err, but to feel we are wrong. Mistakes can harm our self-worth.

There’s a difference between committing an error and believing that we are a mistake. We must label the error as the problem to be solved, not to attack ourselves.

Tim Harford says schools bear much of the blame.

He suggests that tests should include problems that don’t have a correct answer – where people are not judged as stupid or ignorant if they can’t find an answer.

In his own words, “Accepting trial and error means accepting error. It means taking problems in our stride when a decision doesn’t work out, whether through luck or misjudgment.”

When we get stuck finding the right solution, we fail to see that there must be many answers that work.

5. Risk screwing up

Increasing our mistake tolerance is not easy, especially for those who have turned perfectionism into a lifestyle.

Put yourself out there and risk screwing up. It will make you feel less confident at the beginning. However, you’ll perform better in the long run.

Bruce Lee said, “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”

I’m encouraging you to make mistakes more often, not to be careless. Use a trial-and-error approach to raise the quality of your act.

Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues or friends for help. It takes courage and effort to embrace life as a trial and error. The only way to make real progress is to risk screwing up.

When in doubt, remember Winston Churchill’s wise motto: “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

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