Learning From Mistakes

‘Learning from other’s mistakes’ is a ubiquitous concept. It is a proverbial general truth. It is an admonishment we have all heard and all spoken. It is a simple understanding that from other’s errors we can gain the knowledge to avoid the same follies in our own lives. We are counseled on the wisdom of these words from a young age. Examples are pointed out to us at every opportunity. We beg our children to adopt this intangible, yet vital, principle as a guide to life. But this truth is so great, it is not reserved to our offspring. This advice is offered to family, friends, and even strangers. And we receive it from all those sources too. Anytime we share those errors, lapses of judgement, or misperceptions from our own lives with others, we do so with the hopes they may learn from our failures, and hopefully not repeat them. No story of ramifications derived from a choice cannot be the tolling bell of a warning. And there is comfort to be found, for your own consequences, when you feel you have saved someone from the same plight.

I am not speaking to the life-threatening consequences of unsafe behavior. You should not have to see someone die in order to develop a commonsense approach to staying alive. Skydiving, motorcycling, climbing are all inherently dangerous activities with risk of life and limb. We do not do them because we haven’t learned from other’s mistakes, we do them despite their risk. But even then, seeing the ultimate consequence of those activities, with your own eyes, could change an enthusiast’s concept of risk and thus their behavior. Survival of the species could not wait on the ‘other’s mistakes’ learning curve.

But mistakes with physical pain short of death are another story. You’d like to think this would not be true. But here we straddle the learning curve. We readily recognize physical pain whether witnessed or described. And we all have a database of pain references in our memory. We can clearly understand this particular type of error or mistake and its consequences. We just often think we won’t make the same mistake. The learning can only come with the doing.

Example: My friend hammers a nail, misses, and hits his thumb. I learn missing the nail will hurt my thumb and my friend sucks at hammering. I have learned not to make that mistake. But until I try to hammer a nail, I will never know if I am fated to make the same mistake. Maybe I am great at hammering. Maybe my entire life goes by and I never hit my thumb. I might be missing out on a career as a carpenter. Or maybe, two swings in, I hit my thumb. And I will have learned that I too suck at hammering. But I will have learned it from my own mistake, not his.

With children, it is a whole different thing when it comes to physical pain. I can remember as a child, we would do things that were risky, but greatly entertaining, until someone got hurt. We knew all along, that what we were doing would likely hurt one of us eventually, but we were dead set on reaching that threshold before calling it off, even if just for that day. In a group, maybe we are just playing the odds. I always thought it was someone else who would get hurt first. But, even playing alone, we engaged in somewhat dangerous activities. Hopefully, stopping when you got scared and prior to being injured. With siblings, it is even worse. If I had just watched my older brother stick a penny in an electric outlet and get shot halfway across the room, I would have immediately followed suit. For one of three reasons. One, he is stupid and doing it wrong. Two, I am much smarter and will be able to do it without getting shocked. Or, third, even if I fail, I am sure I can fly farther across the room than he did, and that’s a win for a little brother. Maybe risking these small injuries is just a different learning mechanism for children, as compared to learning from the experience of others.

If the lessons we share, that have such a recognizable and understandable consequence as physical pain, are so easily dismissed, then how can we hope the more intangible risks of less immediate concerns will ever be heeded. The mistakes of love, regret, pride or promise. The mistakes of planning poorly, choosing selfishly, or speaking hatefully. The vast sea of decisions and choices life has to offer with a myriad of consequences to bestow. Everything from the less than quality brake job at a particular service station (Learn from my mistake, don’t take your car there.”) to the great regret of words left unsaid (Learn from my mistake, tell them how you feel.’) Sometimes these mistakes are the most embarrassing and the hardest to share. Yet, they are the most valuable lessons we must teach. In this context, the examples of how we discard the wisdom and sage advice of others are too numerous. Have we not all chased a love interest against the wise counsel of family or friends? Have we not all spent, when we were encouraged to save? Have we not all run, when wisdom bade, we should walk? Of course, we have. (I hope everyone is nodding in agreement right now, as I have done all those and more, and don’t want to feel the idiot)

The concept of “learning from other’s mistakes” is sadly misconstrued. We can learn from other’s mistakes. Everyone of them. We learn expected and unexpected consequences of action or inaction. We learn the common pitfalls that pock mark our road ahead. We learn the physical pain of things done and the emotional pain of things not done. We see and recognize the wisdom of every parable, warning, or sage word of advice. That is why we offer this encouragement to others. We must accept that is all that they can learn.

Beginning the concept of “learning from other’s mistakes” with the hopes of anyone avoiding a given risk or its consequences is unreasonable. With all that others can learn from our own mistakes, they cannot learn their own potential, their own abilities, or their own path. We can hope that they miss a few potholes along the way. But we cannot begrudge them seeing if they are really great at hammering. Each person must make their own decisions and choices leading to their own mistakes and consequences. Some mistakes will be the same as ours, even with our prior warnings, and some will be vastly unique. They will learn from their mistakes, just like we learned from ours. They will share their stories the same way we share ours. With the hope that the listener will avoid what they have experienced.

But we must encourage their mistakes and their failures. We must expect them. We must allow them to find their abilities, push their limits, and find their own path. We must be willing to allow them to succeed, where we have failed. Every choice and decision we made held the chance and opportunity of success. We cannot deny them theirs. Offer your advice, your wisdom, your years of experience, because it is knowledge. And every decision or choice we make is based on what we know. Your knowledge shared will have power. And that power may lead to them making different choices or foregoing certain repercussions. But let them plunge headlong into what lies ahead in life, with vim and vigor rather than fear or foreboding. Tell them the story about how you hurt, how you lost, how you fell short or failed. But tell them the rest. Tell them the part where you came out the other side. Where the consequences were paid. Where your life was not defined by the mistake. Where there are no regrets of failing to try. Where you face the many choices and decisions fraught with danger and risk still ahead.

Tell them, if you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t doing anything. If you haven’t failed, you aren’t trying. If you have risked nothing, you have nothing to gain. Then tell them that anytime they have done one or more of those things, you will be there to help them find the other side and stay their path. That is about the best we can do in helping ‘others learn from our mistakes’.

2 Responses to “Learning From Mistakes”
  1. Powerful words. They remind me of a cartoon I cut out many years ago and often referred to… it read, “I don’t intend to make my parents’ mistakes. I prefer to make new ones of my own.” This post makes me think, and definitely deserves a re-read!

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