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Failure is only helpful if you can learn from it

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Failure is only helpful if you can learn from it

Scott Miker

A lot of people talk about their failures and all that they learned from them.  Thomas Edison said that he doesn’t look at mistakes the same as us; in fact, he said he simply found ways that don’t work, not mistakes.  This allowed him to keep improving and getting better. 

But most people that I know do not grow and get better from failure.  They keep making mistake after mistake.  They tend to minimize their own responsibility because it is much easier to blame others.  This also conserves our ego and helps from taking a hit to our self-esteem. 

While trying to keep our ego from getting bruised might seem like a good strategy to help build self-esteem, it really just blinds us to areas that we need to change.  Without that change, we will continue to be blind to these areas, always finding something or someone else to blame. 

So why is it that we can’t just look to the biggest failures and see examples of success?  If failure is such a great teacher, why doesn’t that mean that those who fail the most ultimately succeed? 

The reason is that everyone handles failures differently.  Some people handle failures when they are small in order to avoid large-scale failures.  They keep learning from the small things and testing things on a small scale so they can learn the most with the least amount of consequences.  Then they tweak and improve their way until they the situation is bigger and more important. 

So if you want to start learning from your failures start by taking 100% responsibility.  This allows you to accept your own part in the mistake or failure.  Without this step you will never see anything that you need to improve because you will always feel that others are responsible for the failure, not you.

When you first learn to take responsibility it might hurt your self-esteem a little.  You will likely start to feel guilt and anxiety.  It will hurt and your first reaction will likely be to blame someone else or find some justification of why you did what you did.  But learn to ignore this and calm your emotions because if you do, you can start to evaluate the situation more honestly and then put in place new actions that will lead to improvement.

In Brain Briefs, Art Markman, PhD and Bob Duke, PhD, say, “Instead of ignoring mistakes to boost self-esteem, it’s much healthier and more productive to honestly assess what you do, accept the mistakes you make, and maintain a sense of self-compassion.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Only after you identify mistakes and acknowledge the role you played in them are learning and improvement possible.”

After you accept responsibility, then you can use the systems and habits approach to improvement in order to change and get better.  But you can’t get to this step unless you first accept your part in the mistake and take 100% responsibility. 

The reason we can’t just look at failures in others to see proof that failure is the best teacher is because most people have a difficult time seeing their part as part of the problem.  They miss this important step and therefore completely miss an opportunity to improve.  Instead they feel that someone or something else is to blame and they are the victims. 

So to make the most of the failures that you will inevitably face, start by taking responsibility for all of them.  Then start taking steps to improve and overcome the areas that need to be improved for you to continue to grow and get better.  Over time this will make it easy and natural to take various mistakes and errors that you make and use them to grow and improve.