It is generally accepted that we learn from our mistakes more than we learn from our successes because when we are faced with failure, we deconstruct the process, try and identify areas of improvement e.g. a
- runner might realise from the blisters that wearing a new pair of trainers on the day of the race wasn’t wise
- speaker may feel using too many hand gestures was distracting to the audience
- friend might realise saying no too many times has meant she is no longer invited to parties
I have purposely used such diverse examples to demonstrate that we are constantly learning/resetting our modus operandi based on the feedback/experience we acquire through our life experiences. If all the 3 people had successful outcomes, there would be little reason for them to dissect their behaviour, they would simply repeat the successful behaviour. Of course that too is a form of learning, but doesn’t require effort to do so. It’s an easy task to undertake, which we do willingly. To face failure/mistakes and learn from them requires strength.
However, new research appears to show that people do NOT learn from their mistakes, but they do from their successes: apparently people don’t learn from their mistakes because it hurts their self esteem so ‘they tune out’. The researchers also claim we learn from others’ mistakes.
I would like to posit an easy hypothesis to explain these findings: the role of emotion. When we fail, we are full of negative emotions: I am a failure; there I go again; stupid me; I should have done/known better; why did I do this…etc. The negativity these emotions cause within us is paralysing and we want to hide away from the issues which are causing these emotions, so we take flight. We might pretend we don’t care, it doesn’t matter and we are fine with it. But in reality, we are deeply disappointed with ourselves and would prefer to go somewhere to lick our wounds in private. This is the ‘tuning out’ phase. Once we have indulged in some amount of self pity, allowed the negativity to surface and really face and process these, we are then in a place of calm acceptance, which will enable us to revisit recent events, deconstruct what happened and learn from the mistakes. This is exactly what happened to me recently: I was assessed by a 20min presentation and some errors were pointed out by the Trainers. I was very disappointed in myself and couldn’t watch the video for several days and when I did finally watch it, whilst it was a painful process, I was calm enough to appreciate the positives. Once I had finished watching it, I decided to make the changes that had been suggested and began looking at ways to do so. Like the volunteers in the experiment above, I too initially ‘tuned out’ due to disappointment. I needed to wait until I was ready to allow the negative emotions to surface and face them. When I did so, the negative emotions lost their power over me and I was able to learn from my mistakes.
Of course we learn better from others’ mistakes and successes because there are no negative emotions of our own involved. We don’t want to find ourselves in this situation so are highly motivated to prevent the mistakes others’ have made. Other trainees also carried out presentations which they received feedback on and all of us were keen to learn from each other. But here’s the thing, as I did not have time to practice and consolidate these new ideas, I still repeated several errors they had made…and this was because my nervousness over-rode my best intentions and I fell back to norm.
High Levels of Motivation Brings High Levels of Engagement
That’s why I do not agree with the authors of this study and believe our personal negative experiences teach us a lot more than successes but a certain amount of time lapse is essential for negative emotions to be processed before any learning can take place. The other important feature is motivation of the volunteers: high levels of motivation brings high level of engagement which leads to successful learning.
We see this with people living with mental illness e.g. depression and anxiety. The process of self examination can be extremely difficult because often they are behest with emotionally charged negative thoughts that trap them into their illness e.g.
- I deserve to fail
- I don’t deserve happiness
- My life has no meaning.
- I am useless.
- If I kill myself, nobody would care
Sometimes these thoughts are so powerful, the individual ends their life.
But there are many who do manage to control their negative thoughts and turn their lives around, thank fully. By themselves they keep swirling in the quagmire of negativity, they remain ‘tuned out’ of reality.
For them to change and consider alternative ways of thinking, they need a supportive network around them and have access to relevant therapies, which help them realise they have lives that are worth living. So they do emerge from their depths of despair and pull themselves out – they are resilient and strong, but to find these qualities within, they have had to confront their negative thoughts.
If we could stop being anxious/depressed by simply seeing others who are or people who are happy, well, then the world would be a different place.
What have you learned from your mistakes or the mistakes of others?