Stress Management and Mastery: How to Learn from Mistakes


Q. I've been told that I need to learn from my mistakes. But telling me to learn from my mistakes is easier said than done. How exactly does it happen?

A. People seem to go through three stages in learning how to learn from their mistakes:

Stage One: Get me out of this!

No one likes mistakes or the problems and challenges that accompany them. But each mistake, problem and challenge comes with a gift for us.

When we are rescued from our mistakes, we miss out on what we are to learn from them. There are certain lessons that each of us is to learn in life. If we don't learn the lesson the first time around, the same mistakes, problems and challenges will come back around.

I call this the "taps and 2-by-4's process of life." When we need to learn and/or change something, life begins with a small tap on our shoulder. If we don't pay attention, the taps get more forceful. If we still don't listen, life has a way of taking out a 2-by-4 and whacking us across the head to get our attention.

Having been on the receiving end of a few 2-by-4's, I recommend that you pay attention to the taps, because 2-by-4's hurt.

Stage Two: Get me through this

Instead of looking for a way out, you are looking for a way through. We begin to ask questions like "How can I get through this?" instead of "How can I get out of this?" The focus is on survival instead of escape.

The only problem is that while surviving sounds good, it's not very compelling. How excited would you be each morning if you got up thinking, "All right, I get to go survive today"?

Sometimes it seems like the very best we can do is survive a situation, but I believe there are better responses we can choose. In the words of Dan Fogelberg: "Lessons learned are like bridges burned, we only need to cross them but once."

Stage Three: What can I learn from this?

This is when you begin to learn from mistakes. If you believe that all mistakes come with hidden gifts, then this is when you can begin to discover them. Just asking the question frames the situation in a different perspective.

Here are some useful questions to ask: What was I trying to accomplish? Did it work? What ongoing themes were revealed that need to be changed? How many other ways are there to accomplish what I want? Is what I want to accomplish the right thing to do? Is it worth doing? What will happen if I keep making this mistake and/or don't learn anything from this problem?

Making a mistake is not the biggest mistake we can make; not learning from them is the biggest mistake.

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