Learning from Mistakes
When my children were young I had the opportunity to watch a number of Disney animated movies. Many of these movies were memorable but a select few stand out. One of these was The Lion King. As children do, they learn through repetition. I must have watched this movie ten times. Remarkably it never gets old. I have been known to watch movies with a different lens than others that I know. I am constantly looking for the moral of the story, for teaching points that would be useful to help others and illustrate a wise point. Well in The Lion King there is a touching scene that illustrates the nature of learning. In the depths of his loss and disillusionment Simba is reunited with Rafiki who ultimately becomes his mentor. Rafiki tries through numerous attempts to convince Simba of his rightful place as King and has significant difficulty getting through to him. The pain which Simba is caught in (his past) is far to great for him to overcome alone and without help. He simply cannot be present in the moment when he is stuck in the anguish of the past, thinking it was his folly that resulted in his fathers death. As Rafiki starts to get through to Simba in one poignant moment he whacks Simba over the head with a wooden staff. Simba exclaims Ouch! Then asks “Why did you do that?” Rafiki responds “It does not matter it is in the past” Rafiki then swings the staff to once again whack Simba on the head but the lesson is learned: The past can offer us learning but we must focus on the present. Simba ducks and avoids the second blow.
This movie clip has stayed with me because it teaches a timeless lesson. When we make a mistake we need to learn from it and grow. How do we do this? For me it is a straight forward process.
Accept my role in what happened
- Forgive myself for not being perfect (I still expect to be even though I know this is silly)
- Ask myself: what happened and why did it happen?
- Seek to understand how my actions adversely impacted others. Seek their forgiveness if necessary.
- Ask myself: how can I keep this mistake from happening again?
- Resolve to live for the present and impact the future positively through a behavioral change.
- Give myself permission to forget the event but not the learning and mean it.
How can we change our behavior if we do not first accept our role in it. This is a fundamental state of maturity that is a necessary condition for growth. If you do not accept this fact then stop reading now. The rest won’t make sense to you anyway.
I read a quote once that I fell in love with:
"Do yourself a favor. Overlook at least two things today" M.J. Ryan
I believe that to overcome our negative mental models we need to learn to transcend them. Forgiving ourselves for making a mistake allows us to both heal our bruised ego and move on to learning what we may from the event.
We need not ask complex or difficult questions to learn. Sometimes the simple questions are the most elegant and thought provoking. What happened, why did it happen. Just start an honest conversation with yourself. Free of the guilt of judgment and condemnation you will find you are wise in identifying the source and cause of the problem.
It is rare that our actions have no impact on others. I believe it is crucial to ask yourself and others how your actions may have caused harm. Please note there is some common sense required here. I am talking about mistakes that may have irritated or hurt someone’s feelings. Listen to their words and emotion and ask their forgiveness. Do not rationalize or explain just apologize.
Learning / Improving
How can I keep this from happening again? With the potential emotional blockages addressed we can now get to the task at hand understanding how we can improve. I have found that the answers to mistakes are not particularly difficult to find. Armchair quarterbacking is not that difficult a sport. The challenge comes in the next step identifying what behaviors need to change to keep the mistake from recurring. This itself is not the difficult part, the discipline to change the behavior is. Make a commitment possibly find a trusted friend to act as an accountability partner and by all means start small. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!
I once listened to a motivational speaker who told a funny skit about negative self talk. He said in a public setting he once yelled for the negative talk to “SHUT UP!” He then described how all those around him stared at him wondering… The point is that once we have moved on, forgiven ourselves, learned, and changed behavior we must stay in the moment. Do not allow yourself to backslide and ruminate over the event again and again by doubting yourself in the present.
Learning is a journey not a destination so keep traveling. I have learned to accept mistakes. I still hate it when I make them but I am at peace with the fact that this is the path to learning and ultimately wisdom. We have to make mistakes to learn. Uncovering our mental models and hidden assumptions without making mistakes is a tall task and not for the faint of heart. Mistakes are a far easier way to learn about yourself and then grow. Keep traveling