The first part is plain wrong – or, as one might call it, “a mistake”. It seems obvious that it is possible in theory at least that you can learn any process by following it correctly without mistakes. Whether it’s tying a shoelace, playing a sonata on the piano, or even assembling flat-pack shelving. You probably won't get it right first time, but you just might. And in order to do it a second time, you definitely need to do it a first time. If it did happen to go right first time, and your memory was functioning well, you could be said to have learned how to do it – and would prove that to be the case by getting it right on each subsequent occasion.
I was wondering why the Mistakes Myth is so prevalent - and it pops up like acne all over the place. I heard it at a session last year at Stanford Design school, one of the world's leading business schools. They gave only one example - of a child learning to walk, through a series of stumbles. But these are not mistakes. In a process of trial and error, the errors give you feedback allowing you to make quick corrections to keep going with the bits that work. No mother would say ‘my child make a mistake today’ if he had a small bump as a toddler; it's all part of the process in any Learning Environment. What you get most of the time in a science lab is not mistakes or failures (unless you don't record your data, which is a mistake, or don't complete your projects on time, which is a failure), but information or results.
Let's contrast a Learning Environment (where the focus is on learning or on experiment) with a Professional Environment – where the activity is expected to be executed to a good standard (for the clients). Would the proponents of the 'OK to make mistakes myth' be willing to subject themselves to a mistake-prone dentist with a drill to their mouth, a surgeon with a knife or a nurse with their drugs? I guess we could all learn something from that!
It’s easy to get confused by context. A driver making a mistake as a map reader leads to inconvenience and maybe an amusing story. A driver making a mistake as an avoider of cyclists or pedestrians leads to a tragedy.
And we get confused by language. The opposite of failure is success: you cannot have the concept of one without the other. It's like light and dark, profit and loss, but that tells us nothing about the world, only how language works. So what's the opposite of ‘mistake’? ‘Getting it right?’ In general, in most aspects of our lives, we get on with things with a reasonable degree of competence, and ‘not making mistakes’ is so unremarkable that there's no single word for it, and it's easily neglected. We tend to talk of Success when something goes well… beyond expectation. What works fine and what works well are both worth exploring for learning: this is the lesson of Solutions Focus, of positive psychology, of the strengths movement. Yet it's Mistakes - the things you are supposed not to do, usually for a very good reason - that get such a good press. Why and why does it matter? We like drama and stories, and mistakes are often remarkable and interesting, but this preference can skew our values and perceptions.
Here are three examples:
The Mistake that turns out well. You make the mistake of sitting at the wrong table, you meet a wonderful person and have been with them ever since. A good consequence, but there’s no learning about where to sit - and the right table could have worked out well too.
The Happy Accident - a surprise result. You fail to make the strong glue that you wanted, and you make a weak glue by mistake - yet you are astute enough to invent the post-it note. Alexander Fleming notices that penicillin kills bacteria. He's reinforced his existing learning to stay alert, but not to keep laboratories dirty (which was the original mistake).
Process of elimination. When there are very few possible answers, you can arrive at the right answer by rejecting all the wrong ones. This raises you to the level of learning of pigeons in a maze, but most situations are more complex and interesting.
Another source feeding the myth is the Psychology of Mistakes. Let's consider Improvisation and Personal Learning Journeys. In improvisation circles you hear of the ‘Failure Bow’ (or even ‘The Church of Fail’) and are advised to Embrace your Mistakes. And that's fine in a workshop and even to some extent on a stage (where the fumbled action or the miss-said word can turn into a happy accident), but it has limited application in life. With Embracing Mistakes, the value is the de-value. It's about reducing the stakes, appreciating that in these contexts mistakes are pretty inconsequential - and so it makes sense to reduce the fear of mistakes and encourage 'having a go'. That's the same reason why we can celebrate abandoning the tradition of beating schoolchildren for errors in class (which got mixed in with beating them for behavioural lapses). That made no more sense than castigating scientists for experimenting or decrying nature for proceeding via evolution.
We are also told that ‘We learn from our mistakes in life’ – that they are somehow psychologically good for us, perhaps especially character-forming. We are encouraged to develop Resilience, our skill or resource for bouncing back from mistakes, failures, disappointments. Again, though, the learning is in the bounceback - the success. The only learning from the mistake is 'Don't do that again' - which often times we already knew.
The tennis player Vitas Gerulaitas had lost 16 consecutive times to Jimmy Connors when they met again in the 1980 US Open final. Gerulaitas wins and announces, "Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitas 17 times in a row." It’s a great comment. But losing to Connors had not taught him how to beat Connors. Beating him did. The research bears this out. 60% of first set tennis winners go on to win the 2nd set (which in 3-set match means they win the match). If you have two evenly matched teams in any sport, (and one wins and the other loses), which knows more about winning? Success breeds success.
So what can we conclude?
Keep things in proportion, appropriate to the stakes. If the mistakes don’t much matter, then don’t give them excessive psychological weight. It’s a good idea to reduce needless perfectionism.
In a learning environment, treat mistakes lightly as a signal to have another go at succeeding or progressing. That's the one useful contribution of the Mistakes Movement - it's why we invest in simulators.
If you make mistakes in your organisation, it's worth saying sorry, as that builds trust and reduces excessive fear of making mistakes. It's most unfortunate, for example, that politicians cannot admit to making mistakes.
Value feedback - your own and other's useful stories. That sets you up to make use of feedback for fast adaptation. It’s a great improvisational and learning skill to notice how we are doing in relation to what we are aiming to do. Correct your course by spotting and quickly dealing with errors.
And learn from other people's mistakes - generally a list of tempting moves to avoid saves time and pain, and gets you more quickly to the Success Stack, so you can learn from what your mentor ultimately got right.
The danger of these myths is that they encourage mistakes in the wrong contexts. And they blind us to the infinitely greater learning from getting things right. So let's learn to learn from success and getting things right.