Many of us shy away from making mistakes. We equate mistakes with failure, and failure with the level of our self-worth and value (or lack thereof). We fear that if we mess up, others will see us as frauds, or as less intelligent, or as not up to snuff.
The truth is that mistakes are one of the most accessible, and most transformative, tools in your tool kit for self-improvement. Mistakes are, in essence, the only way we can get better, expand our potential, and become more empowered beings.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking," agrees. (1) "Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning,” he writes. “They are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new.”
That’s because in order for there to be learning, there must first be learners. And the only way for learners to come into existence is either through their own trial and error, or by being taught by someone (another learner).
He likens learning to evolution. The only way our DNA evolved to the point that we’re at now is through trial and error. When there was a “mistake” in the evolutionary process, and some species headed towards extinction, nature had to learn from it, self-correct, and try another route.
In other words, the beauty and power of mistakes is literally written into the structure of our cells, and the same philosophy when applied to our daily lives can also help us to evolve and grow our own thinking, approach to living, and success.
How to Make (Better) Mistakes
1. Don’t Deny Them
Often, when we mess up, we try to sweep it under the proverbial rug. We’ll pretend it never happened, or cover it up socially with an excuse or a lot of blustering, or try and hide it even from ourselves.
But if we deny our mistakes, we won’t learn from them. We deny the power of the mistake to help our own evolutionary growth.
“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” advises Dennett. “Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are.”
2. Inspect Your Mistake
Now that you’ve acknowledged that you messed up, bring your awareness to the mistake. Whatever it was, look at your motivation. The information you acted on. The rationale for the decision you made. The actions you carried out.
Pinpoint where the mistake failed, and then think of an alternative.
“We can actually think the thought, reflecting on what we have just done,” says Dennett. (2) “And when we reflect, we confront directly the problem that must be solved by any mistake-maker: what, exactly, is that? What was it about what I just did that got me into all this trouble? The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you've made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it, and not be just another blind stab in the dark. In which direction should the next attempt be launched, given that this attempt failed?”
3. Try Again
Don’t let failure hold you back. Don’t let it cripple your motivation and confidence. Instead of seeing a mistake as a sign of weakness, thank the universe for this opportunity to learn. Take what you learned from the mistake, and try again with this new information.
You may suddenly experience a breakthrough. Or perhaps it fails again. Whatever the outcome, you’ve learned and will keep moving forward to new growth, success and achievement.
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