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I thought that we learn from our mistakes - I was wrong

"Do you know that we learn more from successes than from mistakes?" My co-trainer reviews the materials for CORE leadership and comes across a rather elaborate exercise meant to help participants learn from their mistakes. This is something I've learned and generously shared with others throughout my years as a leader, coach, and consultant. In fact, as I write this blog, an old colleague calls, and when she hears what I'm writing about, she says, "I learned from you that it's okay to fail, and I'm very grateful for that. Before that, I was always walking on eggshells, and now I know it's fine to stumble, get up, and keep going."

So, what's the truth? Let me give you a summary of our human learning capacity:

-/+ Our own mistakes
+ Our own successes
+ Others' mistakes
+ Others' successes

Recent research by Ayelet Fishbach, a psychologist and behavioral scientist, tells us that people find it difficult if not impossible to learn from their own mistakes.

- Failing feels unpleasant – so our learning is limited.
The basic requirement for learning is to pay attention to something. What we don't pay attention to, we cannot learn from. And that's exactly what we don't do when we make mistakes. Failure is not pleasant; our ego is fragile, and our feelings of self-worth can be more delicate than we realize. Mistakes make us feel bad about ourselves. We'd rather look away to avoid feeling bad. Our primary reaction is not to look back, not to feel bad again, and thus not to learn from it.
+ Now, the plus side. People who consciously turn the switch and look back do indeed learn from their mistakes. When making mistakes is the intention, as in the development of new technologies and concepts, it's easier than when the mistake was unintended. In the latter case, the ego has taken a (too) big blow.
+ Others' failures feel much less unpleasant – so we can learn again. A simple way to bypass our own ego is to look at the failures of others. Critically examining someone else's mistakes results in a higher learning effect than critically examining your own mistakes. Your ego is no longer in the way, and your brain gets back to work.

+ Success feels great – so we learn more. A pat on the back works wonders for our self-esteem and our ability to further improve ourselves. We are more receptive to new information after receiving positive affirmation than after receiving negative feedback. Interestingly, we also enjoy learning from the successes of others. Success is easier for our ego to pay attention to, whether it's our own success or someone else's.

As a result, we've made changes in our training program. The exercise on learning from mistakes has been removed; we won't be doing that anymore. Participants can learn about this elsewhere. Instead, we now provide a concrete exercise on how often they have been successful in their lives. Every time they changed jobs, organizations, or countries. Every time something went well at work. Every time a relationship changed, a loved one passed away, children came and went. Every time life or work required an adjustment. We confirm that many things do go well. That we are capable of many things. Learning from successes. We're going to give it a try. Perhaps we're wrong, and if that's the case, you'll hear about it, and you can learn from our mistakes.

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