What Can We Learn From The Mistakes We Make?

To err is human!

As we have all experienced (sometimes painfully), mistakes are an essential part of life. They’re how we learn and grow and accomplish things.

Consider this: When toddlers are learning to walk, they stand, take a step and fall down. Then they get back up and try again, and again. Before long, they’ve mastered control of their bodies and they’re off, rarely crawling again. This is also how we learn mastery as adults—we try something, fail, learn from it and try again. Just like little kids, this is how we grow.

The Mistake-Learn-Grow Relationship Stays With Us Throughout Our Lives.

Everyone makes mistakes, every single one of us. There’s a big difference, however, between those who can learn from their mistakes and those who can’t. I would even offer that the secret to success is knowing how to treat mistakes as a foundation for future achievements. The sooner you learn to capitalize upon, rather than avoid, your mistakes, the sooner you’ll grasp the crucial knowledge that can be gained from them. Then you can move on to new decisions, and probably new mistakes, which is also at the heart of the fast-growing concept fast failure.

Why Do We Make Mistakes?

One of the primary reasons is that life is unpredictable, which is why it’s called trial and error. None of us are handed a guidebook on how to live our lives, so we have to figure it out as we go along.

Hopefully, after a series of mistakes, we learn to stop repeating them. But since life is filled with unknown variables, this is sometimes hard to do. That’s why we need to learn how to thoughtfully respond to our errors and make them part of our growth strategy. We should accept, even welcome, failures as an inevitable, necessary part of life and not fall apart when they happen. (For a magnificent endorsement of the value of failure, check out J.K. Rowling’s speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2008.)

What Can Mistakes Teach Us?

There’s a reason mistakes are often called life lessonsThey teach us how not to do things in the future.

Along these same lines, scientific research offers us some fascinating insight. In 2011, Dr. Michael Kilgard and his team from the University of Texas at Dallas conducted a study which revealed that our brain goes through significant changes every time we make a mistake.

Dr. Kilgard theorizes that during the learning process while the brain is compiling information, it literally enlarges. Over time, the brain returns to its original size but retains the new neural pathways that the new information generated, including mistakes. In other words, making mistakes makes us smarter by creating more efficient brain synapses and fundamentally altered neurons.

Kilgard suggests that both the neurobiology of learning and our experience of it share a common principle: skill comes from mistakes. Lots of them, in fact.

Encouraging Mistakes in the Workplace

Although it may seem counterintuitive, businesses actually stand to gain if they encourage mistakes in the workplace. I’m not talking about errors that are a result of sloppiness or bad management or logistics breakdowns. I’m referring to the kind of mistakes that result from calculated risks.

By embracing “failures,” an organization helps its employees gain the necessary confidence to take risks, go out on a limb, try something new—and not beat themselves up when things don’t work out as planned.

In fact, many savvy employers today are employing this strategy (especially women business leaders, as we’ve seen in our work with female CEOs). They’ve intentionally created workplace cultures that encourage employees to try out new ideas (trial and error, like toddlers), figure out what works and what doesn’t, and move forward with the successes or pivot and try something different with the failures.

What does this acceptance of mistakes do? It drives innovation, supports groundbreaking thinking and most importantly, enables businesses to be competitive leaders in the marketplace.

Granted, as culture change experts, we know that making the transition from a culture where mistakes were traditionally penalized to one that encourages them does not happen overnight.

So, what can be done to facilitate this change?

Leading by Example

From our experience working with businesses that need to change their cultures, we know that in most cases, it’s not enough to send a company-wide memo telling employees that it’s okay to take more risks and that failure is accepted. Old habits die hard, and your staff will be skeptical at first.

To counteract this reaction, we suggest that you, as the leader, lead by example. How might you do that? Here are four suggestions.

1. Maybe ask employees for ideas on how to improve your company’s customer experience, then select two or three of those ideas to test with those same employees. See what happens, and talk about how you are willing to make some mistakes with your staff as they learn how to change their habits to deliver better results.

2. Or, perhaps it’s time to change your own management style. You might be a traditional top-down leader who is quick to tell folks what to do instead of asking for input. In that case, try embracing a more collaborative culture by forming teams that can make forward-looking, innovative decisions, together. What if they make the wrong decisions? Take this opportunity to create new processes that allow them to make errors, learn, find new ways to do things, and in the end, come out on top, all the while building better teamwork than before.

3. Employees will take most of their cues from their leaders, meaning that management needs to demonstrate the importance of trying out new solutions, themselves. This top-down shift in mentality will not only act as an example, but will also show that it’s okay for others to “follow the leader.”

4. You might even make a point of leading company seminars about mistakes and how people can learn from them, how you have learned from them. You could even create a motto around mistakes where you 1) Recognize them, 2) Learn from them, 3) Stop doing them.

Encourage Feedback and Transparency

Feedback and transparency will also play a crucial role in this transition from mistakes are bad to mistakes can really teach us things and help us move forward, better. Your employees should feel comfortable presenting their ideas, not worried or ashamed. You’ll quickly realize that when everyone feels okay sharing their ideas and failures, efficiency also increases.

Some of our clients even hold meetings where they discuss things that did not go well and what lessons were learned from the mistakes. In this way, people learn from each other’s stories, i.e., what to do and what not to do.

Ready to turn your mistakes into successes?

Mistakes have a lot to teach us as long as we allow them to. The biggest hurdle, however, is to change the heavily entrenched idea that errors are a terrible thing and people should be reprimanded for them. If you’d like to learn more about how to leverage mistakes and use them to your advantage, contact us at Simon Associates Management Consultants. We specialize in helping organizations change, grow and thrive amidst today’s changing times. We’d love to have a conversation about how we could help you and your business soar.

From Observation to Innovation,


Andi Simon, Ph.D.
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants