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How To Learn from Mistakes? One of the main characteristics of successful people is the way in which they manage mistakes and failure. Children who grow up with a healthy attitude towards mistakes and who recognize that mistakes are experiences from which to learn are children who are willing to take realistic risks in meeting life's challenges.

Adults will be better equipped to nurture this attitude in children if they themselves are not burdened by unrealistic fears of making mistakes. Children are astute observers of how their parents and other caregivers respond to setbacks. Day in and day out we serve as models for how to react to mistakes. Given this responsibility, those of us in the position of raising and interacting with children must strive to develop a positive perspective about obstacles and setbacks. Even if we are not raising children, achieving this positive perspective is important for our own emotional and physical well-being.

When confident people fail at a task that they judge to be realistically achievable, they attribute their setback to factors that are within their control to change. For example, they assume that if they adopt a different approach or different strategy or expend more energy in practicing the task, they will eventually succeed. In contrast, individuals who lack confidence are apt to feel that they cannot improve, that they are destined to continue to fail. Pessimism rather than optimism dominates their life.

The woman who retreated from an invitation to give a talk believed that she was not capable of making a successful presentation and would be embarrassed if she attempted to do so. Given this belief her style of coping was to avoid the situation rather than face the possibility of feeling humiliated. Similarly, the man who was fearful of changing jobs also retreated from a new challenge, hesitant to leave his comfort zone although his comfort zone provided him little, if any, satisfaction.

While flights from challenges may afford relief, the relief is often brief at best, quickly replaced by feelings of low self-esteem and a heightened sense of failure.

What can we do to venture forth from any fortress we may have created and overcome the fear of failure? There are several reasonable steps we can take or guidelines we can follow. While at first glance these steps may appear easy to achieve, they require thought and effort. Change takes time, especially if we are accustomed to remaining in our comfort zones and avoiding challenges. Let's look at some of these guidelines. As the name guideline implies, they are not cast in stone and should be used in ways that are most in accord with your personality.

Take a Snapshot of Your Life from a Helicopter
The usefulness of taking a "helicopter" perspective of your life is an exercise that will help you to assess and define the issues you have faced and continue to face. Imagine that you are in a helicopter from which you can survey your past, your present, and where you would like to be in the future. From this perspective I recommend that you consider a number of questions, including the following ones pertaining to mistakes and failure (as you read them, think about the answers you would give):
  • Do you find yourself avoiding situations for fear that you might make mistakes? Has this behavior occurred on many occasions? When was the last time it happened?
  • What activities do you especially avoid? What activities are you least likely to avoid? What distinguishes these two kinds of activities?
  • How do you feel when you have avoided engaging in a certain task? How do you feel when you have not avoided a difficult task even if you were not successful?
  • What is one of the worst mistakes you have made? What happened after you made that mistake?
Responses to these questions provide a portrait of the role that mistakes and setbacks play in a person's life. As some individuals reflect upon their answers they will be dismayed and embarrassed by how often they retreated from situations that they judged had a strong possibility of producing a negative outcome. In contrast, others will be pleasantly surprised by the frequency with which they had confronted challenges. In addition, answering these questions assist many people to become increasingly aware of those activities that are most problematic for them and those activities that bring them satisfaction.

Helicopter views can be very revealing of our strengths and vulnerabilities and set the stage for changing our mindset about setbacks.

Don't Jump into 10 Feet of Water if You Can't Swim but You Can Start by Getting Your Ankles Wet
Once we have taken a helicopter view of both our past and present it is time to shift our focus to the future. Make a list of several things you would like to see changed in your life. Begin by selecting one of them that is important to you but that you have avoided and now wish to face. The selection of just one thing to change in your current life is what Bill O'Hanlon advocates in his thoughtful book "Do One Thing Different."

Once you have chosen the one thing to change, your next task is to define realistic expectations and goals for that change. For instance, the woman who was fearful of going to social gatherings set as her goal going to one such event during the next month, while the woman who refused an offer to speak at a local organization set as her goal calling that organization and offering to make a presentation. A man who was hesitant to go dancing with his wife because he felt "klutzy" set as his goal dancing with her at a friend's wedding.

While to some these may seem like small, even insignificant, goals, for the people involved they often represent major steps towards overcoming the fear of failure and looking foolish. Small, realistic, achievable goals are important since each success serves as the foundation for future success. A basic mistake that many individuals make is to turn what should be a long-term goal into a short-term goal and expect unrealistic rapid change. When the change does not occur it often leaves people feeling more defeated and more afraid of taking risks for fear of continued failure.

Prepare and Rehearse
Upon defining your goal you want to maximize your chances for success. During this process, you may require some assistance from a friend, relative, or in some instances, a counselor. Basically, when we alter a "negative script" in our lives and replace it with a "positive script" we must not only have the goal in mind but also the preparation necessary to reach that goal. Just as actors rehearse a new script many times to learn their lines, so too is practice necessary in "real-life" to learn a new, more satisfying script.

The woman who was hesitant to attend social gatherings for fear she could not "keep up with the conversation about current events" discovered that reading a weekly magazine such as Newsweek or Time as well as the daily newspaper allowed her to become as well-versed in what was transpiring in the world as most other people. In therapy, we role-played discussions that might occur during social events. She also engaged in conversations with two trusted friends before moving, as she said, to "the big time."

The woman who turned down an invitation to speak at a local organization prepared her talk. She taped and listened to it. Upon hearing herself, her first reaction was to retract her offer to speak. However, she persisted, received feedback from her husband, and did a splendid job. She said, "That wasn't as tough as I thought it would be."

It is important to recognize that it takes courage to change and that change takes time.

So What If It Doesn't Work. What's the Worse Thing that Can Happen?
Even thoughtful plans of action to overcome the fear of mistakes may not achieve success. The goals and/or the strategies to reach these goals may turn out to be unrealistic or contain unforeseen obstacles. Many have witnessed how devastating it could be for some people to finally take a risk and face a situation they have feared only to experience further failure. When this occurred they felt even more defeated and retreated from future attempts, resigning themselves to the current situation.

Consequently, it is important to evaluate the possibility of certain steps not working. You must think, "This sounds like a solid plan, but what if it doesn't work?" This is not intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure but rather to emphasize the message "if this plan doesn't work, we shouldn't get discouraged but learn from it." Instead it shows the necessity of developing back-up plans should the first strategy prove ineffective.

It is important to consider the worst thing that could happen if you attempted a task that resulted in failure. We must remember that all people share anxieties about making mistakes and looking foolish and that it is important to focus on what we can learn from these mistakes. As we think about the worst thing that can happen if we fail, we often discover it is not as terrible as we initially envisioned.

How Will You Feel if You Don't Leave Your Comfort Zone?
In considering the various guidelines that have been outlined, keep in mind the question of how will you feel if you continue to stay in your fortress and don't leave your comfort zone. How will you feel if throughout your life you expend most of your energy offering excuses for not engaging in certain challenges for fear of making mistakes rather than facing these challenges? As I noted earlier, it has been my experience that the temporary relief of avoiding possible failure is quickly replaced by feelings of weakness and regret.

Far too many people look back at their lives with sadness and a sense of low self-esteem as they recall lost opportunities. Steps to overcome the fear of failure can be thoughtful, realistic, and achievable and not endanger our sense of self-worth or dignity. The alternative of not taking these steps is often associated with increased pain and distress for not having the courage to leave one's comfort zone.

In this regard it may be helpful to consider the following observation about the role of mistakes that appeared in a report issued by the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility:

Mistakes are a natural part of life. We learn by experimenting; mistakes and failure can be important parts of our learning process. Einstein flunked grade-school mathematics. Edison tried over 9,000 kinds of filaments before he found one that would work in a light bulb. Walt Disney went bankrupt five times before he built Disneyland. If we accept setbacks, we can continue to risk, learn, and move on with excitement and satisfaction.

Einstein, Edison, and Disney were highly successful, talented, creative people whose contributions to society are very noteworthy. Their success would not have taken place had they remained in an illusory fortress of security, avoiding possible failure and embarrassment. None of us truly knows what we are capable of accomplishing. However, we must realize that any possible success in both our personal and professional lives will be short-circuited unless we overcome the fear of mistakes and failure. I believe that overcoming this fear is one of the most vital goals for all of us to achieve.

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