Most of us are familiar with the phrase ‘learn as if you will live forever!’ and other phrases like ‘learning is a lifelong process’. The latter suggests that the experiences of life are a source of learning and indeed every day we are faced with various opportunities to learn. However our attitudes often stand in the way of learning from our experiences, especially learning from our mistakes.
The issue of learning from our mistakes is not a trite one, because the tendency is to blame ourselves, feel inferior, focus on the costly consequences of our mistakes or simply move on without giving the mistake much thought.
But mistakes are a useful experience, and if we reflect on them with the right attitude, we can learn a lot. A story is told of a young man who made a huge mistake which embarrassed the whole organization. Feeling dejected and ready to resign he went to apologize to a senior staff member. But before he could finish his rehearsed speech the senior official said to him; ‘Don’t worry, if you are not working, you don’t make mistakes. You made the mistake because you were working.’
Mistakes can be a good sign, a sign that you are out there doing something. And regardless of the cause, we need to learn from our mistakes and become better people and better professionals. Some of us have heard of or read about the ‘East Asian Miracle’ in which countries from East Asia such as Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand experienced very high and sustained economic growth. While trying to understand why these countries developed so quickly the World Bank (2005; 15) observed that “behind the East Asian Miracle was the countries’ willingness and ability to learn from, rather than persist in their mistakes.” For these countries, learning from their mistakes led to improved quality of life for the people. We too can learn from our mistakes in ways that will improve not only us, but those around us as well and that is only if we change our perspectives towards mistakes.