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Why is it Important to Learn from Mistakes? One's response to actual failure or the possibility of failure strongly reflects a person's level of self-worth and feelings of competence. Let's look at a few examples:

  • A child struck out twice in a Little League game and immediately screamed at the umpire, "You are blind, you are blind! I wouldn't have struck out if you weren't blind!" Interestingly, in the same game, another child responded to striking out by going over to the coach and saying, "Coach, can you show me what I'm doing wrong? I keep striking out. Am I holding my hands wrong? What can I do different?"
  • A woman was asked by a local organization to give a presentation about a project with which she was involved. She said that she was busy and asked an associate to speak in her place. In fact, she was not busy but rather "terrified" of public speaking. When I asked what terrified her, she responded, "What if I make a mistake? What if I forget what I wanted to say? I would feel like a fool." She also acknowledged that although she felt temporary relief at avoiding the speaking engagement, afterwards she felt like a failure for being so afraid.
  • A man was not content with his job, feeling he had reached a "plateau that no longer offered any stimulation or excitement." Yet, when a friend informed him about an opening for a more challenging position in another company, he told his friend he didn't think it would be a "good fit." In reality, he was fearful of leaving his comfort zone and taking on new responsibilities that he might not be able to manage. He told me with obvious dismay, "I may not enjoy my present job but at least I know I can handle it. I hate to admit it but I'm worried that I might screw up in this other job."
As you reflect upon these examples, you might wish to consider the following questions, "What is the mindset of successful people towards mistakes and failure? In what ways do they differ from people who are not very successful or not very satisfied with their lives?" These questions are more than academic in nature. The more we can understand the ways in which confident children and adults perceive and subsequently respond to mistakes, the more we can help our children and ourselves develop a positive mindset.

Successful people believe that mistakes provide opportunities for learning and future success. They attribute mistakes to conditions that can be changed. For instance, if children with high self-esteem fail a test that they believe was within their ability to pass, they will seek out the assistance of teachers or parents and/or develop more effective strategies for studying and learning. If they are playing basketball and an opposing player drives by them to score, they will listen closely to the coach about how to be a more effective defensive player in the future. It is not that they say in a jubilant voice, "I am happy to make mistakes so that I can learn." However, they do not experience failure as proof that they are failures. They view mistakes as expected occurrences.

In marked contrast, individuals who are not successful and who are burdened with feelings of low self-esteem do not experience mistakes as experiences from which to learn. Instead, they often attribute failure or the possibility of failure to conditions that they are powerless to change, a belief that triggers feelings of helplessness and resignation.

A vicious cycle is set in motion when children or adults believe that they cannot learn from mistakes. Feeling hopeless and wishing to avoid further perceived humiliation, they are apt to resort to ineffective or self-defeating ways of coping such as quitting, offering excuses, blaming others, or becoming a class clown or bully. In essence, their very attempts to avoid what they fear will lead to further humiliation leads them down a path of pessimism, self-doubt, and a retreat from challenges. A vicious negative cycle is set in motion.

Think about the child who blamed the umpire for striking out or the woman who found an excuse not to speak in public or the man who would not venture beyond his comfort zone in seeking a new job. The common ingredient in the mindset of these three was the assumption, perhaps not fully recognized, that the situation could not improve and if they did not conjure up "excuses" they were leaving themselves open to further emotional hurt and failure.

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