8 min read

How to Learn From Your Mistakes: 7 steps to growth

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In late 2019, I interviewed a Mayor on stage at a conference in Australia. His Council had pulled off some seriously impressive work that they were receiving an award for, and it was my job to get the scoop on the secret sauce.

What do you think it is that made your success possible, when so many others couldn’t pull it off?” I asked.

His answer was clear: “In our Council, we make it safe to fail. People here know that it’s OK to make mistakes, and so they aren’t scared to put themselves out there.” Nice answer.

To follow up, I asked “Awesome. Can you share with us a mistake you’ve made recently, Mr Mayor?

….. cue crickets.

Oops. Maybe not so safe after all, eh?

This week, I'm running strategic leadership training with some senior government leaders, and we opened our first session by sharing some of those mistakes and near-misses with each other. The relief in the room was palpable, as people witnessed their competent, professional, impressive colleagues sharing their recent mistakes - everything from kitchen mishaps, to public speaking blunders. Together, we realised something important: either none of us are imposters... or, we all are.

I reckon we’re all imposters. I work with leaders at all levels, from team leaders to Chief Executives, and the one thing we have in common is: we're all banging around, being human and messing things up. All the time. Since my very first job, I’ve spent my career working with senior leaders and politicians. It was equal parts reassuring and terrifying to realise very early on that there’s nothing god-given about any of them. They’re just as human as the rest of us, and they’re all making mistakes - some are just more visible than others. We gain nothing by thinking that anyone is above making choices they regret.

If you're not making mistakes, odds are, you're not trying anything new. Mistakes are proof that you’re trying. If you're not failing, course-correcting, and feeling like an idiot at least once a week, there are probably shots you're not taking, opportunities you're missing out on, and growth you're short-changing.

The answer isn't to be more perfect, it's to be more forgiving. First of yourself, and then of others. I firmly believe that people, almost without exception, are doing their best. But if we're too hard internally, and don't tolerate weakness and fragility in ourselves, there's no way we can forgive it in others.

Alexander Pope once said: "To err is human. To forgive is divine."

Like most over-used proverbs, it's bang on. But I reckon it's missing a piece. Forgiveness isn’t enough. What we really want, is learning.

Mistakes make us better

Or at least, they can. Unlike success, which we often move past quickly without reflection or acknowledgement, mistakes force us to stop and think. They’re an immediate source of feedback, and they’re right in our face, demanding corrective action.

If we’re lucky, they do a few other things too…

Mistakes make us more creative - Mistakes are a sign that what we’re doing now isn’t working. They force us to look more closely at the situation we’re in and the choices we’re making, and come up with a new way of working.

Mistakes teach resilience - Very few things are as bad as we think they will be. Mistakes are the tangible manifestation of our worst fears and hang-ups… and usually, they work out just fine. When we confront our deepest worries and survive, we gain faith in our own ability and capacity.

Mistakes fill our story bank - No good holiday story starts with all the things that went to plan. When we make mistakes, we add richness and colour to our personal stories, which give us interesting and engaging examples to draw on when we talk to other people.

Mistakes connect us to others - In fact, data suggests that when someone we respect makes a mistake, we trust them more, because we can relate more easily to them. (Caveat: this only works for people we already think are credible. If someone who we think is an idiot messes up, it reinforces our original perception.)

Mistakes make us smarter - When we experience the uncomfortable consequences of our errors, we store that information in a real and tangible way. Our brains are wired to avoid pain and discomfort, so it automatically searches for ways to avoid feeling that bad again.

Mistakes make us braver - When we own up to our faults and foibles, our inner strength gets a boost. When we’re forced to do better, by our own hand, we’re more likely to make important changes and take scary risks that take us closer to our goals.

Mistakes keep us humble - Success can be dangerous. It makes us complacent and can lead to us taking things for granted, or overestimating our own abilities. Mistakes are a useful reminder that no matter how well we’ve done, we’ve always got room to grow.

Mistakes motivate change - Negative experiences are a more powerful catalyst for change than positive ones. When things are going well, it’s much easier to embrace the familiarity of the status quo and defer change. The immediacy and intensity of recovering from a mistake push us to take actio nsooner.

Mistakes help us to know ourselves - We do the things we do for a reason - good, bad and ugly. Every habit, behaviour or tendency has developed in response our environment and experiences, which is fine… until it isn’t. When we examine our motivations and patterns, we gain deeper understanding into why we are the way we are and what we’d like to be instead.

Mistakes remind us what really matters - When we’re faced with losing something important, we get real clarity about our priorities. When we make a mistake that threatens those things, we realise how much we value them and get a fresh perspective on what needs to come first.

Mistakes might not feel good, but they’re important, so let’s not let them go to waste. Learning from our mistakes requires us to do 7 critical things.

Step 1 - Realise you’ve messed up

Our brains lie to us, all the time. When we’re faced with something that’s embarrassing, shameful or doesn’t align with how we view ourselves, it’s easier to ignore or deny the truth.

Mistakes aren’t always obvious - but even if you don’t acknowledge them, your behaviour changes. If you’re not sure whether you’re in the wrong, try observing the way you act and feel.

How to spot a mistake:

  • You feel guilty or have an uneasy sensation in your gut

  • You’re overreacting to something that wouldn’t usually bother you, to deflect attention

  • You’re feeling exhausted and you can’t explain why

  • You’re lying about some, or all, of what happened

  • You’re keeping unusually quiet, so you’re not found out

  • You’re trying to move on too quickly.

If you’re feeling or noticing one or more of these behaviours, it’s time to pause. You might have done something wrong.

Step 2 - Take responsibility

Human relationships are complicated. Things are rarely clear-cut, and there’s usually an opportunity to point the finger outward when something goes wrong.

It’s unlikely that what happened is entirely your fault, but that’s irrelevant. You’re not responsible for anyone else’s behaviour, and you’re certainly not responsible for their growth or change.

The only person you can control is you - so do it. Own up to your role in the error, using plain language and tangible details. You might be tempted to minimise your own liability, soften the truth, or play down the impacts. Or, you might find yourself playing the role of the over-apologetic martyr to garner sympathy and prove what a good person you really are. Neither of these are helpful - they’re both a form of emotional manipulation. Avoid going to extremes and don’t add unnecessary explanations, disclaimers or excuses that will undermine your integrity and the authenticity of your apology.

Step 3: Reflect on what happened

We usually try to move past discomfort as quickly as we can, and when we’re tempted by relief, it’s hard not to grab it.

If you’ve owned your role in the mess - no more, and no less - you’ve probably put out the obvious fire. The easy and most comfortable choice is to quickly put it behind you and get on with being great again. But do that, and you waste the opportunity you’ve just been given. Odds are that you were trying, but you got something wrong. Take the time to work out what bit failed, so you can do something differently next time.

Good reflection asks questions like:

  • What was I trying to do here?

  • Why did I choose to do it that way?

  • What was I afraid of?

  • What good came out of it?

  • What information was I missing?

  • What did I assume or misjudge?

  • What other options did I have?

  • What made those options unappealing?

  • Do I still think that?

  • How did my actions affect others?

  • How do I feel about that?

  • How would I like to approach the same situation differently, if it happened again?

Record your answers, and for bonus points, test your thinking on someone else for a more complete perspective. They’re likely to ask further questions, or point out inconsistencies in your thinking that you haven’t noticed. If it’s not safe or fair to involve affected parties, talk to a trusted friend or colleague instead, who you know will tell you the truth, even if it doesn’t feel great.

Step 4: Put things right

Reflection isn’t enough. It’s important, but it’s also largely self-serving, because it’s helping you to become better as a result of your actions.

Mistakes are an opportunity to build trust and deepen connection with others, but they require you to walk the talk. People don’t need to hear about what you’ve learned or how you’ve changed - they need to see it.

Once you’ve owned your role in the situation, show that you’re committed to change by doing something tangible that relates directly to the thing you messed up. Sometimes you have the opportunity for remedial action that makes the situation better, and other times you don’t. Either way, you need to put things right.

  • If you missed a deadline, submit your next report early.

  • If you let someone down, go out of your way to make their life easier.

  • If you broke or lost something, buy a new one.

And if you have no idea what to do, ask. Direct questions are helpful, that don’t put any onus or pressure on the other person. “What could I do to make this up to you?” is OK, but questions like “What are you struggling with now?” “How has this made things harder for you?” or “What will you have to do now that you didn’t plan on?” are better, because they’re a good pointer for where you can target your efforts.

Importantly, don’t take action expecting recognition or forgiveness. Putting things right means you’re starting from a position of deficit, and you’re aiming to get back to zero. Think from a position of service, and be happy that you’ve made a dent in the ledger.

Step 5: Try something new

If we don’t embed new learning quickly, we lose it. All the reflection and understanding in the world won’t help us, if we don’t have a chance to practice our new skills.

Look for, or create, opportunities to try out a new way of being or responding.

If you reacted poorly to a spouse, child, or staff member, be on the lookout in your conversations for a chance to try a new approach. If you missed a deadline on an important project, volunteer for a role on something else so that you can plan your time or effort differently. Make a conscious effort to notice your defaults or patterned responses, drawing on the outputs of your reflection, and plan for success ahead of time.

Step 6: Make the same mistake again

Very few lessons are learned the first time, at least not in full. Practice makes perfect, and the first new thing you try might not work, especially if your initial mistake was the result of deeply embedded behaviours, habits or decisions.

It’s frustrating, but it’s also totally OK. The goal is progress, not perfection and when you relapse - which is more likely than not - move back through steps 1-5 with a light heart and some self-compassion. It takes time to learn new behaviours, and when we regress, it’s common to think that all our effort has been for nothing.

That’s not how it works. All growth is messy, and growing pains are normal. The worst thing we can do is believe that our time has been wasted - because it hasn’t. Your continued trial and error is a necessary part of changing something important, in a way that you can sustain. Keep going.

Step 7: Make a different mistake

Yeah, sorry.

Mastery is never done. As soon as you learn something new, you realise how much more there is to learn - and that’s perfect. Your journey of self-discovery and improvement will uncover new challenges at every step. Each mistake you make takes you a step closer - but the goalposts will keep shifting.

Be ready to make new mistakes, and approach each day, project or new endeavour with an air of compassionate curiosity. Muse to yourself “I wonder what will go wrong today?” or “I wonder what I’m about to learn here?” and rather than finding yourself in frustration, disappointment or defeat, relish the chance to keep growing and be grateful that you’re moving forward with something that matters.

Remember, mistakes are proof that you’re trying. If you’ve stopped making any, you’ve become too comfortable and it’s time to do something new.

Keep messing up, team. I’m with you.

In summary

  • Mistakes are a necessary component of change

  • Mistakes make us better - or at least, they can

  • Seven steps you can take when you mess up are:

    • Realise you made a mistake

    • Own your role

    • Reflect on the situation

    • Put things right

    • Try something new

    • Make the same mistake again

    • Make a new one.

Rinse and repeat. Happy mistake-making!