Learning From Mistakes — Stories and Science
I make mistakes all the time. I do try to make sure I learn from them instead of repeating them over and over. Learning from small mistakes and help prevent big mistakes — I think that's true in the workplace and in our daily lives.
This topic is fascinating to me, which is why I started a new podcast series called “My Favorite Mistake.”
In the first four episodes, we've heard stories about learning from mistakes.
In episode #1, Kevin Harrington (“Shark Tank”) shared a mistake about how he had all of his infomercial products in the same merchant account and how quality problems with one product threatened his cash flow for his entire business. He and Mark Timm shared some common mistakes from the realm of mentoring, as well.
In episode #2, Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX) shared some strategic and tactical mistakes that he made when he ran for Congress the first time and lost. He didn't blame others. He owned the mistakes, took responsibility, learned, and did better (winning three times).
Episode #3 featured Karyn Ross sharing a story about losing her suitcase in an airport. That story seems simple, but it sparked a lot of conversation about learning from mistakes and being kind to ourselves when we make them.
And the most recent episode #4 has Jim Benson sharing a mistake he made in how he assessed a situation (and the people) at a client some years ago. Like the others, he reflected and learned from that mistake.
Episode #5 features Billy Taylor talking about his favorite mistake from his early days as a manufacturing leader and how that helped shape the rest of his successful career.
Some say it's almost cliché to say things like “we learn from mistakes” or “our best learning comes through mistakes.” There is some science to back that up.
This 2007 article has a summary of some recent research:
Scientists have long known that mistakes are conducive to learning, suggesting the reason lies in the element of surprise upon finding out we are wrong. But how the brain manages to learn from mistakes and how quickly it does so have been unknowns.”
In the study, people were asked to make predictions — and that's exactly what we do when improving through Lean methods. We make an informed prediction, we form a hypothesis about what we expect to happen when we make a change to a system.
The researchers, while monitoring brain scans, then introduced new information that made the previous prediction incorrect — again that happens when we are testing changes in our Plan Do Study Adjust cycles.
It seems that the process of learning through a mistake is faster than conscious higher-level thought:
“Activity increased immediately after the individual saw the new information flash onto the computer screen–within 0.1 seconds–before there was time for any conscious consideration.”
Predictive learning, prediction errors, and attention: evidence from event-related potentials and eye tracking
The top-level summary is very interesting:
“Prediction error (“surprise”) affects the rate of learning: We learn more rapidly about cues for which we initially make incorrect predictions than cues for which our initial predictions are correct.”
Take that in again for a second… being surprised (oh, we were wrong!) leads to more learning. We learn more from incorrect predictions than we learn from the times we are correct. Fascinating.
What mistakes are you going to learn from today? I guess that question is asking you to make a prediction. It's more likely that you'll be surprised by the mistakes you make… and hopefully that leads to learning instead of the repeating of the mistake down the road.
I'm reminded of a quote that I had posted years ago… making mistakes is better than faking perfection.