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The great myth of learning from your mistakes

Have you ever heard a famous person, coach or speaker talk about learning from your mistakes? They all talk about the mistakes they made but then end the sentence with "and I learnt my lesson and never made the same mistake again."

Listening to them, you get the impression that you should only make a mistake once. After all, the adage goes:

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

There is a problem with this line of reasoning: it completes ignores how the human brain works. Anyone who has tried to do almost anything knows just how difficult it is to put this advice into practice.

You know the feeling, right? That awkward one that you have already made this mistake, and a sense that you should have seen it coming? For many of us, we may not even recognise that we are making a mistake.

This is certainly true in my efforts to learn a language. My teacher will correct me over and over again: but I just keep on making the same mistake.

Stop feeling guilty right now

Some success coach might insist you should only make a mistake once. However, I am here to tell you that making the same mistake over and over again is entirely natural.

We should try to avoid repeating the same mistakes. However, we should not feel guilty about this or feel like we have failed, when we do. This is just how the human brain works.

Why do we repeat the same mistakes?

The brain is quick to learn bad habits and slow to unlearn them.

Take your native language, for example. I bet there are mistakes you make when speaking and writing. Sometimes you may not realise you are getting it incorrect, but other times you will be conscious of it.

When I became a writer, I realised just how many mistakes there were with my prose. I use Grammarly to help correct my spelling and grammar mistakes. Every week, they send me a report with the amount of writing I have done and the most common mistakes I make.

The truth is, the report looks very similar every week. I am forever using words like really and actually when I do not need to. I put commas in the incorrect place and omit them when I need them. I talk about "my own experience" when "my experience" says the same thing in fewer words.

What is going on here? I have a bad habit. That habit has been reinforced over and over again in my brain. Or maybe it is the result of a psychological bias. But in either case, correcting it once does not resolve the issue forever.

It is a bit like using exposure

One of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety is to use exposure therapy. If you are scared of heights, standing at the top of high buildings for long enough will eventually reduce this fear as you teach your brain that the situation is safe.

However, this is not a one-time process. You do not go to the top of a tall building, and 20 minutes later you are cured. Exposure only works with repeated practise. You need to keep doing it.

Undoing the connections in your brain

Our brain is composed of billions of neurones. The way we form knowledge is by building connections between these neurones. This takes time. When learning a new skill, we need to practise over and over again to build up and strengthen these connections.

It works the other way too: when we want to weaken and break these connections, it takes time. We need to repeat the exposure therapy, or any other learning pattern, to override these existing structures.

In fact, it is harder to do this when we are unlearning something than it is when we are learning something for the first time.

Think of it like water running down a hill. If you want to control the water, you need to dig a channel for it to flow through. Doing this will be quite effective. You need to keep digging until it is deep enough, but once done, the water will flow the way you want it. As time goes on, the water cuts into the floor of the channel and the river becomes deeper.

However, now imagine there is already a channel dug into the hillside. Now, if we want to change the way the water flows, not only do we have to dig a new channel, but we have to stop the water flowing into the old channel.

This is no trivial task. The water will keep going back to the old channel. The only way we can change it is to make our new channel much bigger and try and block off the old channel.

It is the same with learning: once we have a pattern of neurones in our brain, it is hard to change it. Especially as, with anxiety, we spend years or decades making the channel deeper and deeper with our thoughts and actions.

How do we respond to this?

I have tried to make the point that we should not expect to be able to learn from our mistakes immediately. Does this mean that all hope is lost? Certainly not. We can learn from our mistakes: but it takes a bit longer and requires a bit more focus.

How do we learn from our mistakes?

This is one of those occasions where we can take the techniques developed for cognitive behavioural therapy and other therapies and apply them to everyday life.

Avoiding repeating our mistakes shares a lot of similarity with graded exposure, and we can use the same technology here.

Drill it over and over

The key to good exposure is to repeat the process over and over until you have reinforced the knowledge in your brain.

This is most evident in sport. If you keep failing to catch a ball, guess what you do in training: you practise catching over and over again. You isolate the particular skill you are struggling with and drill it over and over again.

Always making the same mistake when baking a cake? Bake the same cake every night for two weeks. It will be boring. But, by the end of it, I bet you will have learned to bake the cake correctly.

Use deliberate practice

Attached to this idea, is the concept that we should deliberately practise doing it correctly where possible. I struggle with commas, for example.

The best thing I could do would be to repeatedly write out sentences that require commas and ensure I get them in the correct place. Struggling to spell a word? Write it out 100 times. Check the spelling after each time and go back to the start.

Where possible, we want to isolate the problem so that we are just working on that and nothing else. For example, let's say I have difficulty handwriting the & sign. I will not write out whole sentences with an ampersand in: I will just do that one character over and over again.

Put systems in place

Sometimes it is impossible to repeat a situation. Launching a vehicle into space, for example. A spaceship is big and expensive and extremely complex. NASA cannot let spaceship after spaceship blow up on the launchpad until their engineers get it correct.

In such situations, they put systems in place to ensure they fix problems beforehand. They have engineers double-check the work of other engineers and run simulations to determine what will happen without any of the risks.

Take my writing, for example. I know I make repeated mistakes. That is why I use my computer's spell-checker, external software like Grammarly, and have someone proofread my most important documents before they go out.

Sometimes the system may even be there to limit the damage when mistakes occur. In Formula One, drivers sometimes spin off the track. Even though they have been racing for decades, they still make mistakes.

Luckily, the race organisers know this and put in features like gravel traps and tyre walls so that when cars do crash, the drivers are not injured.

Be aware of your biases

The primary reason that we make repeated mistakes is that we do not consciously focus on correcting for them. We often run into this scenario: we make a mistake, then the time after we are determined not to make it again. So, the next time we do it, we are focused on it and successfully avoid it. However, the time after, we forget, and the mistake occurs again.

Occasionally, I use the incorrect there, their or they're. It is not because I do not know the difference. I understand it very well. However, when am I writing, I am usually concentrating on the ideas I am trying to convey, and not always on the exact letters that I type. Lack of concentration, or other things distracting our mind, cause mistakes.

If we know what our most common mistakes are, we can be alert to them. Giving them a little more cognitive capacity allows us to spot them before we make them, and correct for them when we do.

Summary

The idea that we should only make a mistake once is nonsense. It ignores the reality of how the human brain works. It is a pattern of interconnected neurones that is prone to making repeated mistakes.

However, there are things we can do about it. By using the techniques outlined in this article, we can teach ourselves new patterns that eventually allow us to avoid these mistakes.

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Published 30 April 2018. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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