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Mistakes or Learning Opportunities?

Updated: Mar 31, 2023


Richard Curwin (2014)

Have you ever noticed that the worry about getting something wrong can actually stop us from getting started on something new?

Or we endlessly ruminate on a situation that did not go so well for us and berate ourselves for how disappointed we are?

Maybe we have memories of feeling humiliated when we have got something wrong, or experienced intense frustration at making the same mistake again.

Culturally, Curwin believes we “are encouraged both formally and informally not to make mistakes. This belief system is absurd. When I thought of the mistakes I made over the years, the bigger my mistake, the more I learned.” I agree with him, completely!

When I was learning to drive, the biggest struggle for me was parallel parking, repetitively hitting the kerb or misjudging how much space there was between two cars. I was embarrassed at how bad I was at parking but somehow persisted…I ended up passing my test first time which definitely surprised me but taught me a valuable lesson.

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Shame is currently attached to mistakes” which can leave us “afraid to take chances, explore”. (Curwin) I remember a time at school when I mispronounced a word whilst reading aloud to the class, and not only did my classmates collapse laughing, but so did the teacher. Unfortunately, as I have found out, we do not always find ourselves in a supportive environment when it comes to making mistakes and it can lead to low self-esteem and a fear of learning (Nelsen and Gfroerer).

However, we can choose a more positive view of mistakes: “It's a mistake to think of mistakes as something bad. When mistakes become learning opportunities, everything changes.” (Curwin) It is possible to intentionally think through what the “mistake” has taught us and consciously quieten down negative self-talk and the temptation to mutter “I’m such an idiot”.

Wenzel tells us that “Making mistakes and learning from them are natural components of human existence. A mistake-free existence would lack risk-taking and be bland. Often, those who are willing to take a chance wind up accomplishing something significant.” And this can lead to a “sense of confidence, capability, and resiliency” (Nelsen and Gfroerer)

So the research is very clear - if we can reframe a mistake as a learning opportunity and specifically identify what we have learned from it, we can expect to reap the rewards of increased confidence and resilience.

It is far more challenging to reframe something that initially appears to have gone wrong and I would even be so bold as to say it is actually easier to dip into being self-critical and harsh. Choosing to think about the learnings requires some effort and is a challenge.

So how to we do that?

My top tips are as follows:

1. Acknowledge that this mistake has caused a moment of struggle and feels tough.

2. Consider what a compassionate response might be – remind yourself you are not alone, you were trying your best.

3. Do you need some self-care such as a walk, deep breathing, talking to a friend, before you reflect on this “learning opportunity”?

4. Jot down what you have learnt and would do differently next time.

5. Remind yourself of things you are certain of (ie you have made mistakes before and recovered, the love of your family, the tide will still come in and go out)

I challenge you to think compassionately and more positively about mistakes you make next time.

And let me know how you get on!

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