Why mistakes and failure are critical for success

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we learn and what we need to have in place to support this process.  Something that has become obvious to me in exploring this idea is that a critical part of learning is allowing space for error. 

It’s something that troubles us all too often.  When we get that major project, we might feel excitement and elation to start off with but that can quickly turn to anxiety and stress as we worry that we might fail or make mistakes.

It can be crippling sometimes and really hold people back if they do not feel comfortable or supported to take a chance on something that at best could bring huge dividends but at worst, we might feel it could affect our credibility or damage our reputation.  The thing is though, mistakes and failure are critical for success.  Sometimes, we need to get it wrong so that we can know how to get it right.

If we consider learning and how this takes place, we can see it takes a number of forms.  Firstly, we are all used to learning by being taught.  Most of us have grown up in a classroom being told by a teacher how things are and what we should do.  Secondly, we can go and find information previously through reading books and mostly now by accessing the internet – Google knows everything, right?!!

And Google has often provided me with the answers and ideas I need to make things happen and keep on track.  In today’s world, people love to share and so we can find out the major pitfalls in advance and try to make sure these don’t happen within our project.

Looking in the dictionary for a clear definition of learning it does indeed include these two things but it also includes another major vehicle for learning and that is experience.  The first learning we do as a baby or a toddler is through trial and error.  For example, how do we learn to walk?  By trying it and falling down A LOT of times!!  Eventually, most babies manage to find balance and walk for themselves without falling over although this can take some time and we can still forget sometimes or get it wrong and lose our step.

In terms of the workplace, one of the key things that stuck with me from my study of political philosophy back in the day is taken from John Stuart Mill’s arguments around free speech.  He says that everyone needs to be able to have their say because if they are allowed to express their opinion, then it can be discussed alongside any counter arguments and ultimately, if they are then persuaded they are wrong then the learning is greater.

 “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”  (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

It’s the same for making mistakes.  As children, how many of us were confronted with a naked flame and told not to touch it because it’s hot?  And how many of us touched it anyway because we needed to learn for ourselves?  The learning is greater from touching the flame than being told not to.

There’s a reason we have sayings like ‘we learn from our mistakes’ or ‘you live and learn’.  It’s because we are programmed to learn by doing and we need to do so to fully experience the world and all it has to offer.  Learning in this way means it won’t all go smoothly and we may fall down from time to time but getting comfortable with getting it wrong is absolutely key to success.

 

Do you have an example of learning through mistakes at work? Are you a Manager or CEO in an organisation that encourages people to try new things even if it might go wrong? Tell us your tory in the comments below.

 

3minuteleadership.org

 

2 thoughts on “Why mistakes and failure are critical for success

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  1. IMO – it’s in failure we define what success means – forged on the anvil of regret – it’s regret that makes us want to never fail again from our current “failed” perspective – but I think we’d never learn or gain the clarity of purpose without “failure”.

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