Learning from mistakes: what are we *really* learning?

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Mistakes? I’m ready for ya!

A side-note on the nature of ‘mistakes’

Let’s be clear, first of all, that a ‘mistake’ is a label we put on something we might not have done, or we might have done differently if we had the foresight that comes with hindsight (or a crystal ball).

A mistake isn’t something to ‘beat ourselves up’ about, to ruminate on or to regret, it’s simply a learning opportunity.

But how? What is it we are really learning?

And, therefore, how can we make the most of those opportunities to look backwards and reflect forwards? ​

What Did We Learn?

It’s common practice in organisations and project teams, in certain coaching scenarios, and even around the family dinner table(!) to ask,

What did we learn?

​Meaning, how can we explain why something didn’t go to plan?

When we use learning in that context, we’re talking about ​what​ was done (or what was not done).

When we ask that question, we come up with answers like:

Let’s run more scenarios next time.
Let’s get more investment before we launch the next product.
Let’s launch more quickly.
Let’s launch more slowly.
Let’s bring in more people.
Let’s be leaner.
Let’s get different (better) expertise.
Let’s not be so cautious.
Let’s be more cautious.

And so on…

Sure, sometimes there ARE interesting and perhaps even important lessons in how something went but those lessons are only really relevant if the next project or situation is exactly the same as the last.

Which, of course never happens because circumstances will be different next time.

We’ll be different next time.

Even if we do nothing at all, there’s an embodiment that comes with time and practice, conscious or not.

Where Does Real Learning Come From?

There’s a different kind of learning, though, which I think is much more helpful, and will drive exponential results both in our lives and at home. And that’s learning, not from what we did, but from where, and how we listen.

When I talk to clients who are telling me how much they wish they’d done something differently, the answer they give when I press them about what that would have been is usually some variation on,

I wish I’d listened to my gut.

What they’re telling me with this phrase is that they had an inkling that they had a choice at the time, and they ignored (or didn’t tune in clearly enough) to what they already knew.

Here’s What ‘gut feeling’ Isn’t​…

I’m not talking about the kind of gut feeling that gives you the heebie jeebies about Bob in accounting.

Chances are, when you get ​that​ feeling, you’re making a lot of stuff about the guy, so look beyond your assumptions, see him as a human being and make a loving, rational decision about his role on your project. Don’t act from the space of not liking the car he drives or how he dribbled lunch down his shirt.

I’m also not talking about the kind of direction that comes from ego, which usually comes with a side of self-justification,

​If I steer the project in this direction, I’ll look clever and the big cheese might notice me.

And don’t be deceived by the flip of that — the ~~fear~~ voice,

Oh, I’d better not speak up because I could lose my job and then I’d be homeless, living under a railway bridge.

Actions have consequences, but those voices are driven by insecurity of vanity and are a slippery slope to taking yourself way too seriously. Life (and your project) isn’t about you in any shape or form.

One, True Voice…

There’s another voice, however, that comes alive in moments when need to ​know​ something.

It’s a voice that combines your lifetime of personal and professional experience (yes, like the shell of a ninja turtle, you’re bringing your expertise with you, aware or it or not), the huge processing power of your sub-conscious brain, and a smattering of divine inspiration.

Yes, ​that ​voice.

If you look at everything you’re classifying as a ‘mistake’, chances there’s some point when you lost connection with that voice.

Which means that what we’re asking ourselves, when we talk about learning from mistakes, is how to remember to listen more deeply next time.

The Answer is…

Conscious ‘not forgetting’ isn’t the easiest thing to live into. We’re not going to go around saying to ourselves “D​on’t forget! Don’t forget!”

What works instead is knowing that we ​always​ know what to do in any situation. We always have a sense of what’s the right next step — even if it’s to slow down and sit into the ‘not knowing’ for a while. We don’t have to ​remember​ anything, we have to know what gets in the way.

That thing that gets in the way, my friend, is all the noise in your head. All those ego voices about what will make you look good, or feel better, any notion of external comparison or what you should be doing, all that self-judgement or self-questioning we heap upon ourselves (and others).

That is simply background noise that is telling you nothing at all about where you are and what it means.

The more deeply you see that to be true, the less there is to do and, amazingly, ‘mistakes’ will evaporate from your life like steam from a kettle.

With love,



About the author

Cathy Presland is an expert in transformative leadership. She has more than two decades of experience in government and international organisations and her focus as a coach is to support impact-driven individuals and organisations to improve their performance, leadership and peace of mind so they can make more of a difference with the work they do. Find out more at https://cathypresland.com

What if making an impact was part of your everyday? Stories to light up your soul. Read more and free courses: https://cathypresland.com/find-out-more

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