Be a ‘learner’ not a ‘mistake-avoider’

We learn by failing, if failing means not getting things right all of the time.

Whether it’s those first steps, our running style or scientific discoveries that come only after trials are ditched and techniques refined, learning is process.

We are not built for perfection.

Experiments have conclusively shown that we are hard-wired to think in ways that may help us survive, but are innately flawed and that we shape realities on shaky foundations and false evidence as visual illusions show.

Even where there are no apparent flaws, we are born into cultures that define value relative to colour, creed and sex (to name but a few) and so a healthy, thinking wo/man can as easily become an enemy of the state if the circumstances allow.

So why I ask myself, has perfection become an acceptable goal? And why do we let it define our value?

We want the perfect body, partner, boss or job, a Vogue house, ideal parents, faultless kids, it seems there’s no end to our list (or lust) to achieve it.

We demand it in others and ourselves, creating a cycle of striving towards an end that is ultimately: unreachable.

Nor does it serve us well, feeding the soils of impractical expectation; the endless need for high notes and excitement that lead to unhealthy self-focus and make many of us tired, disenchanted, depleted.

We wonder if anything is good enough anymore. Without the ‘so-what’ factor we dismiss the littler wins, day-to-day domesticity becomes inconsequent. And if we do manage to reach a goal, well, out go the posts.

Extending our reach is not in itself bad, certainly that’s how we evolve, but progress needs to be understood in context.

For example, behind every new tech toy that succeeds is a team that tried and failed and refined and researched and re-focused their efforts often over a long time and with pain. But we do not see that history, only the glossy packaging that we buy holus-bolus complete with its promise of happiness.

What’s worse we have extrapolated this consumer-based experience into every part of our lives forgetting that there is always a back-story to what we buy.

We demand: it must be right, first time, each time! Or back it goes…

The result? Anxiety around error. For some, a culture of blame.

Out come the finger pointers when we get it wrong, storming into offices ablaze with anger, puffed with reproach but rarely, self-effacing. We’ve all done it ourselves at times.  Stress in particular can put us on auto-pilot.

Mistakes are punished, ridiculed, exposed for all to see; or used to keep us quiet, or in our box: stay down!

Done often enough this generates an environment of fear; where people melt into the background, preferring to get by rather than risk the great vision or hard decision that could be right, but could be wrong, but at any rate, would be more visible. This is not productive.

Now I am not for one moment talking about those who make destructive choices or deliberately hurt others then, unwilling to accept the results, push responsibility away. There’s another word for this: deflection.

I’m talking about we regular folk who want safe and purposeful work and to live life with support and meaning and a sense of worth, contributing to others as well as the world.

If we are going to progress then we need to look at our mistakes for what they are: the chance to learn.

This may be hard with everyday evidence of stonings conducted through the media, during performance reviews or at home but as it’s unlikely to change, I guess we must.

And we must.

The first step, as ever, is becoming conscious of our own tendency to blame and to help support ourselves to frame things differently.

We must not just accept that learning includes mistakes; we must associate the two.

“We need to cultivate an ethic and philosophy of learning through mistake making. If we become ‘learners’ instead of ‘mistake avoiders’ we can begin to tap into our vast inner potential.” So says author and psychologist Karuna Cayton.

Since most of us want to live and work in thriving, innovative, successful environments, we can also act to create them.

Showing our kids or colleagues that we are happy to embrace our own errors as a tool for learning when they occur is one way.

This means not being defensive and openly admitting where we don’t quite nail it.

Likewise we can be positive when others fall short. A good leader compliments the effort, focuses on the lessons learned and provides inputs that guide the person towards the desired result.

So how can we remain outcome-focused and continue to deliver value while striving to grow and at the same time treading lightly enough to enable mistake-learning?

Four tips:

  1. If you find yourself pointing the finger, slow down. Ask: have I ever done what I am accusing this person of doing to me? For those of us yelling at the slow driver as we throw our body weight behind the horn, it’s a no-brainer. We are guilty as charged so let’s take a deep breath and bring some perspective.
  2. Or when the finger is being pointed at you, ask the same question back. And without being facetious, ask how that person handled what happened to them and what they learned? People often have helpful insights and a gentle reminder that we all stuff up does not go astray, provided you use it wisely.
  3. Although it is hard, accept that at times you will be wrong and when you are, take responsibility, appropriate remedial action, apologise if needed and move on.
  4. Remind yourself frequently that the ‘greatest’ people of our times were just as flawed as you – but they did not let that stop them.


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