Mistake vs. Success: When Do You Learn from Each?

Back when I was a software developer, I excelled at certain mistakes. I could write an infinite loop faster than anyone. Then there was the off-by-one mistake for arrays or tables. I repeated certain mistakes too often. Until I started an engineering notebook. Once I started to learn about my mistakes, I stopped those mistakes. I happily moved to other, less common mistakes.

As a writer, I made certain kinds of writing mistakes in my nonfiction. However, because I wrote for magazines, I received copyediting feedback early in my writing career. I learned from all of those mistakes.

I also learned from my successes. The first time a colleague said, “That’s cool. What made you decide to write the code that way?” I felt proud. And the first time someone said, “Until I read your piece, I hadn’t thought of that idea in that way,” I was thrilled.

I could do more of what people liked (my successes) and less of what people didn’t like (my mistakes).

I learned from both.

However, I recently read (or heard on a podcast) that we “only” learn from our mistakes. However, I have personal data that tells me otherwise. And I’ve met plenty of other people who tell me they learn this way, too.

What if we reframed these ideas into various kinds of feedback? Mistakes are change-focused feedback. Successes are reinforcing feedback. Now, let’s see how that works.

Learn from Change-Focused Feedback

We assess our mistakes when we decide we want change-focused feedback. We might receive change-focused feedback from other people, especially about our behaviors. Let me use the example of recognizing when I programmed wrong—the infinite loops and off-by-one errors. I tend to think of these actions as a loop:

  • Become aware of those errors.
  • Decide that I wanted to fix those errors. (I made other errors that were not as easy to categorize, so I didn’t decide to fix those.)
  • Look for my common patterns from those errors.
  • Experiment with ways to fix those errors.

I needed to become aware first, before any other actions. That’s what I wrote about in Tip 2: See Your Reality.

I didn’t magically fix my programming errors in a week or two. I had to practice.

What if I only focused on my errors? I’m not sure I could maintain my congruence. That’s why I also learned from reinforcing feedback.

Learn from Reinforcing Feedback

An early writing reviewer told me he had trouble reading an early article. “I couldn’t see real people doing this,” is what he said to me. I got that “aha!” moment, and now I often tell a little story at the start of an article to set the context. I use that as a guideline, not a rule.

Not long after that, I wrote an article that several people commented on. I received comments such as, “Are you hiding in my organization? We had exactly this same conversation just yesterday.”

That was (lovely) reinforcing feedback. I used a similar loop:

  • Become aware of what people told me they enjoyed.
  • Decide if I wanted to do more of that.
  • See if I could learn about a pattern from their feedback.
  • Apply the pattern in more ways, as an experiment.

As you can see, for me, it’s the same principles: awareness, decision, learn, experiment/apply.

When Don’t I Learn?

I don’t learn from either mistakes or successes under these conditions:

  • When I lose any awareness.
  • If I’m not interested in changing anything.
  • If I can’t use the feedback to see my patterns.
  • When I feel so much pressure that I feel as if I don’t have the time to experiment.

I suspect you might be different. I’d like to know when you learn from mistakes or successes.

That’s the question this week: Mistake vs. Success: When do you learn from each?

(Note: if you want to learn how you might use my system of writing, my writing workshop is open for registration.)

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