Learn from mistakes to realize success.

“Success is not final.  Failure is not fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill

Are you ever critical of yourself? Have you ever been working on something or trying to learn something new only to hear a little voice in your head start to chat it up with negative comments like, “you’re not doing it right” or, “don’t mess up”, or even, “nothing will change”. Maybe you have something familiar in your head. I have certainly noticed my inner critic and how it can get in my way. I used to think that it was good to have a strong inner critic, that it was what drove me to success and kept me on my toes.  Perhaps there is some truth to that idea.  I also notice that sometimes my inner critic goes a bit too far and has a negative impact that can keep me stuck in old patterns or at the very least, from growing and experiencing the joy that life has to offer. We certainly are not encouraged to fail in this world. We reward success and punish failure. Yet, I would like to submit that it is failure that is needed and is, in fact, part of success. We have to walk through failure, in order to succeed.  Here are some examples of what I am trying to convey.

Recently, I attended a training that was comprised of professionals looking to further develop their skills around a particular consulting and facilitation theory.  In this room, there were people who have achieved great things personally and professionally.  And yet, what was getting in the way of the group over and over was the inner critic of individuals and the fear of failure; the fear that, despite our track record of learning and success, somehow we were never going to learn this particular theory and apply it in our work successfully.  It was not until we all acknowledged this fear and acknowledged that mistakes were part of the learning process and opportunities to try something else, that we were able to reduce our collective anxiety and open ourselves to trying, to learning.

Great leaders know that they must try and accept that sometimes their best efforts do not lead to success all the time.  Even professional athletes where it’s all about winning and losing know that mistakes are part the game.  Have you ever played or been to a baseball game?  Do you know that the best hitters in baseball hit the ball 30 percent of the time that they come up to the plate. That means that they miss 70 percent of the time. What if a player was so afraid of making a mistake, that he never even swung at the ball? Statistically, the batter is not going to get a hit most of the time.  Tiger Woods, (the number one golfer in the world at the time of this writing) does not win every tournament that he plays, nor does every shot he takes land in the perfect spot (author’s note December 09, time will tell how he manages himself in his recent personal struggle).  Serena Williams is a champion tennis player with a masterful serve.  Yet, I’ve seen her double fault on her serve from time to time.  It does not stop her from getting back to the baseline, tossing the ball in the air, and giving her all to her create a brilliant serve the next time.  Great athletes, like great leaders are not paralyzed by fear of mistakes, or by failure. They notice, acknowledge what did not work, learn, adjust, and try again.

There are a few possible side effects that I would like to note for not acknowledging failure or mistakes.

  1. Repeating mistakes:  without acknowledging mistakes as part of the process, we may keep repeating the same mistakes over and over, not recognizing our errors.
  2. Lack of growth:  if we continue to make the same mistakes, then we are not growing. Therefore a side effect is no improvement.
  3. Limiting possibilities:  if we fear mistakes, we may go out of our way to avoid them at all cost. If we are working at avoiding instead of embracing growth, then we do not innovate. We do not discover. We limit possibilities.
  4. Denial:  by avoiding  the examination and acknowledgment of mistakes, we make room for another emotional state; denial. Denial will gladly step in and block out any possible acknowledgment of failure.
  5. Stuckness:  if we fear failing so much that we are driven by the fear, then a common side effect can be “stuckness”. We know that we want to grow, but we don’t want to fail, so we do nothing. We’re stuck.

There is a difference between failure and carelessness. The failure of which I speak involves positive intention, effort, sincerity and hard work. Careless actions also can lead to failure but I do not hold it in the same learning experience category as failure. Carelessness is related to the short cut, the lazy, the “given up” and don’t care. That is not failure to me; that is quitting. Failure requires trying with positive intention.

Here’s a little exercise that I invite you to try.  Take a moment right now if you can.   Sit down with a clean sheet of paper and divide it into two columns.  In the left column list  five things that you are able to do well at work, in your career or in any part of your life. Your list could include task skills like “I am good at managing project time lines”.  Or it could include, “I’m very good at noticing people’s potential and hiring great future leaders”. Or your list could include, “I’m a good friend”.  “I can catch a fish”. Whatever!  List them out on your paper one under the other on the left side of the sheet. Now, think about the failures and mistakes that you had to experience in order to be able to do these things well. Write them down on the right side. Take a moment and look at your list. Ask yourself this question. Would you be able to do the items on the left side of your paper, if it were not for the experiences on the right side of the paper?  How did these experiences shape you? What did you learn? I would not be able to tie my own shoes today, without trying over and over again, until I learned how to tie my shoes. Along the way, there were several improperly tied shoes.  You can’t learn to swim without getting wet and even swallowing some water from time to time.  You can’t grow as you lead your life, without some challenges along the way.  Mistakes are part of the process.

The process of learning continues in life. It is part of life. It is a joy in life. Learn to embrace the entire process of learning; the attempts, the mistakes, the adjustments and the success.

We try, we fail, we get up, we adjust, we try, we succeed, we learn, and we do it again. We lead our lives. Sometimes we swing and miss.  Sometimes we hit the ball.

Keep swinging.


Author: Larysa Slobodian, MA

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