failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn't grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviors.
Learning from mistakes has two components. The first is a system. Errors can be thought of as the gap between what we hoped would happen and what actually did happen. Each system has a basic structure at its heart: mechanisms that guide learning and self-correction. A mindset is driven forward b a restless spirit, an intellectual courage, a willingness to face up to failures and to be honest about key data, even when it undermines cherished beliefs. It is about method and mindset.
Cognitive dissonance is the termFestinger coined to descrive the inner tension we feel when, among other things, our beliefs are challenge by evidence. Most of us like to think of ourselves as rational and smart. We reckon we are pretty good at reaching sound judgements. We don't like to think of ourselves as dupes. That is why when we mess up, particulary on big issues, our self-esteem is threatened. We feel uncomfrotable, twitchy.
We have two choices. The first is to accept that our original judgements may have been at fault. We question whether it was quite such a good idea to put our faith in a cult leader whose prophecies didn't even materialize. Yet, it is threathening. It requires us to accept that we are not as smart as we like to think. It forces us to acknowledge that we can sometimes be wrong, even on issues on which we have staked a great deal.
Second option: denial. We reframe the evidence. We filter it, we spin it, or ignore it altogether. That way, we can carry on under the comforting assumption that we were right all along. We are exactly right on the money! We din't get duped!
A deliberate deception (misleading one's colleagues, or a patient, or a boss) has at least one clear benefit. The person doing the deceiving will, by definition, recognize the deceit and will inwardly acknowledge the failure. Perhaps he will amend the way he does his job to avoid such a failure in the future.
Self-justification is more insidious. Lying to oneself destroys the very possibility of learning. How can one learn from failure if one has convinced oneself -through endlessly subtle means of self-justification, narrative manipulation, and the wider psychological arsenal of dissonance-reduction - that a failure didn't actually occur?
The relationship between the ambiguity of our failures and cognitive dissonance.
Most failure can ben given a makeover. You can latch on to any number of justifications: "it was a one-off," "it was a unique case," "we did everything we could." you can selectively cite statistics that justify your case, while ignoring the statistics that don't. You can find new justification that did not even occur to you at the time, and which you would probably have dismissed until they - thankfully, conveniently - came to your rescue.
Self-justification stops us from agonizing over every decision, questioning every judgement, staying awake at night wondering if getting married/taking that job/going on that course was the right thing to do. The problem, however, is when this morphs into mindless self-justification: when we spin automatcially; when we reframe wantonly; when failure is so threatening we can no longer learn from it.
If it is intolerable to change your mind, if no conceivable evidence will permit you to admit your mistake, if the threat to ego is so severe that the reframing process has taken on a life of its own, you are effectively in a closed loop. If there are lessons to be learned, it has become impossible to acknowledge them, let alone engage with them.
We associate inteligence, however, defined, as the best way of reaching truth. In reality, however, intelligence is often deployed in the service of dissonance-reduction. Indeed, sometimes the most prestigious thinkers are the most adept at deploying the techniques of reframing, often in suh subtle ways that it is difficult for us, them, or anyone else to notice.
A perfect metaphor for eror-denial in the world today: the external incentives - even when they reward a clear-eyed analysis of failure - are often overwhelmed by the internal urge to protect self-esteem. We spin the evidence even when it costs us.
Intelligence and seniority when allied to cognitive dissonance and ego is one of the most formidable barriers to progress in the world today.
By retrieving, editing, and integrating disparate memories, we have imagined an entirely new event. The very fact that memory is so malleable may lead us astray when it comes to recollection. But it could also play a curcial role in imaging and anticipating future events.
Learning from mistakes relies on two components: first, you need to have the right kind of system - one that harnesses errors as a means of driving progress; and second, you need a mindset that enables such a system to flourish.
Companies make judicious use of tests, challenge their own assumptions, and wield the lessons to guide strategy. It is a mix of top-down reasoning (as per the mathematicians) and bottom-up iteration (as per the biologists); the fusing of the knowledge they already have with the knowledge that can be gained by revealing its inevitable flaws. It is about having the courage of one's convictions, but also the humility to test early, and to adapt rapidly.
This is the power of the narrative fallacy. We are so eager to impose patterns upon what we see, so hardwired to provide explanations that we are capable of "explaining" opposite outcomes with the same cause without noticing the inconsistency.
Winners require innovation and discipline, the imagination to see the big picture and the focus to perceive the very small. "The great task, rarely achieved, is to blend creative intensity with relentless discipline so as to amplify the creativity rather than destroy it. When you marry operating excellence with innovation, you multiply the value of your creativity.
Iteration is vital for both engineers and soft, intangible problems like writing novls or scripts. It is not an optional extra; it is an indispensable aspect of the creative process.
Self-esteem, in short, is a vastly overvalued psychological trait. It can cause us to jeopardize learning if we think it might risk us looking anything less than perfect. What we really need is resilience: the capacity to face up to failure, and to learn from it. Ultimately, that is what growth is all about.
When you regard failure as a learning opportunity, when you trust in the power of practice to help you grow through difficulties, your motivation and self-belief are not threatened in anything like the same way. Indeed, you embrace failure as an opportunity to learn, whether about improving a vacuum cleaner, creating a new scientific theory, or developing a promising soccer career.