Learning from mistakes

It's not nice when we make mistakes, but it happens all the time. What's important is not the mistake itself but how you deal with it and then what you learn from it.

Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone fails sometimes. That's just part of being human. While they might not feel good in the moment, mistakes and failure can actually be really useful. You've probably heard people talk about learning from their mistakes. And you might've heard others talk about failure in similar terms as well – about failing fast and moving on, for example. And maybe you're wondering, what can my failures actually teach me? Here are five important ways we can learn from our mistakes.

1. By improving our knowledge

Let's start with what might seem obvious in a conversation about how mistakes can help you learn but is still worth talking about.

Getting things wrong can be a really useful way of improving your specific knowledge about facts and ideas. What didn't you know? What didn't you consider? How different would things have been if you had known those things? How can you make sure you keep them in mind in the next thing you do?

Nobody knows everything, and nobody can think of every angle. We all need to get things wrong to show what we didn't know or what we missed.

And if you get clever about it, you can take it to the next level. Maybe you keep overlooking things which aren't exactly the same but have something in common. Like how another person might react to something you say or do. If so, this might be your 'blind spot' – something you don't ordinarily think about because you're busy thinking about other things. But if you're aware if it, you're halfway there to stopping repeating it in future.

2. By finding a different way to do things

If you didn't get the result you wanted, maybe you need to think about how you went about the work.

Ask yourself why the way you were working might not have helped you succeed. And think about what other approaches you could've used. How many can you think of? And what are their pros and cons?

Asking yourself these kinds of questions – or asking others to help you – can help show you options you didn't consider in the first place. But even better, this kind of thinking can help you to be more experimental and creative in the way you work. Just remember, experimenting and creativity can lead to more failure. But when you get things right, the results can be fantastic.

3. By understanding ourselves better

How long does it take to really understand yourself? How long have you got? For most of us, it's the work of a lifetime.

Your mistakes can help shine a light on your weaknesses. What are the ways you keep falling down? How can you plan to get better at those things? But just as importantly they can show you your strengths. Maybe something missed the mark overall, but there was one particular part of it – your relationship building, or your presentation – that you really nailed, and that you always seem to nail.

But it's not just about what you're good at, it can also be about what makes you tick. When you ask yourself why you failed at something, sometimes the answer might be that you just didn't enjoy doing it, or you didn't care about the outcome. Similarly, it can also show you what you really do care about.

4. By being happier

Now we're not saying it's a good habit to fluff tasks where you're not feeling bought-in. But when it happens it can be a great way of learning what it is you value, or what sorts of tasks really do motivate you to give your best. Once you know what it is you enjoy and what really matters to you, you can look for ways to do more of those things in your life, whether as part of your career or in what you do outside of work. And doing things you find fulfilling is a great way to be happier.

Failure can also be an important warning sign and tell you when you need to take more care of yourself. Maybe you made mistakes because you're taking on too many things, or because you're working too fast? However much you want to do well, remember that nothing's more important than your wellbeing. So don't be afraid to take time for yourself if you need it.

And lastly, it's always useful to remember that we're capable of failing, because everyone is. We're all human, we all get things wrong. Instead of beating yourself up about – even if you failed at something you thought was really important – forgive yourself for falling.

5. By understanding others better

But you're not the only one who will fail. It's just as important to forgive others when they fail as well. That compassion will help you to understand other people as well as yourself and will help them to trust you.

Failure can also be a chance to learn what works and what doesn't in your working relationship with another person. Perhaps one of you isn't listening to the other.

All the things you can learn about yourself that we talked about in point 3? You can also learn them about other people. And the better you understand others, the better you can work with them and help them play to their strengths, helping both of you. Learning to do this is an amazing skill to have, and a big part of what leadership is.

So next time something you're working on goes wrong, don't be angry at yourself. Instead, take an honest look at what went wrong. What does it tell you about you, the way you approached it, and the people you did it with?

If you get good at answering and asking these kinds of questions, you'll find you stop making the same mistakes and that failure only makes you better.