It’s an age-old question. Do human beings learn from failure? Of course, is the short answer. At least the well-adjusted among us do. That we learn from our mistakes through trying and failing is a proven fact.
Trial and Error
Trial and error is at the core of the process of natural selection found in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It holds, in essence, that when a species fails to learn from its mistakes, it perishes from the face of the earth. But failure is often painful, physically and emotionally. And while most of us recover quickly from physical pain, the emotional byproduct of failure can be lasting.
You might think humans have evolved to the point that we understand the best way to learn from our mistakes is by observing other people’s failures and not repeating them. Not so. While we do learn from other people’s mistakes, and it is easier than learning from our own, the best learning occurs when it’s personal. Learning is hard. Those who ascribe to the concept of trial-and-error learning believe that personal failure is necessary for full learning to occur. In fact, learning only by observing other people fail can even be counterproductive.
Research into the neurological and psychological aspects of learning suggests that the inability to learn from one’s own mistakes may cause problems ranging from childhood bullying to road rage and substance abuse. Not learning from failure would mean that the neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for monitoring and correcting immediate errors are being short circuited. When this happens, and it occasionally does, it causes the afflicted to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
How to Learn by Failing
Learning by failing is a process that requires practice to perfect. Failing teaches you what you don’t know and then helps you learn. It’s an opportunity for personal growth. Dr. Joyce Brothers has been quoted as saying, “The person interested in success has to learn to view failure as a healthy, inevitable part of the process.”
How exactly is a person supposed to embrace failure? Here are a few guidelines:
- The first step in learning from your mistakes is to embrace them. When you simply try to shrug off the emotions and insecurities that can arise when you fail, they often resurface later, sometimes with a vengeance. It’s important to manage your emotions lest you become a victim of them.
- Even as you’re processing your emotional response to failure, start working on a rational one. If possible, detach yourself and analyze your mistake as if you were an impartial observer. Be as honest with yourself as possible when thinking about what went wrong, and why. It isn’t easy, but it will help you identify similar situations in the future and make you better prepared to navigate the cross currents.
- Strategize on ways you can mitigate the tendency to repeat your mistakes. Create a failure-prevention battle plan by arming yourself with the tools you need to succeed. Writing things down as soon as possible is an excellent way to remember. Then, if you see yourself drifting off course, you can refer back to what you’ve written and keep things on track.
- Tell someone else about what happened and how you handled it. This will also help them to avoid the same mistake, and chances are, the gratitude you receive for your altruism will help embed the solution in your subconscious as well.Of course, we all make mistakes. Life will dish out plenty of failure. The key to learning is to filter out, or at least correctly process, the emotional and psychological aspects of failure. Only then can the logical left side of the brain balance out the more emotional right side.