Experience is often the best teacher: Lessons learned are often the best lessons; the more painful the lesson, the better the learning.
But you can learn some of those lessons from other people — and just as importantly, help them learn a few lessons from your mistakes.
That’s easier said than done, though, especially since science shows we’re naturally reluctant to share our failures with other people.
In a 2019 study, University of Chicago researchers asked teachers to recall a time they had succeeded in the classroom, and a time they had failed. When they asked which story the teachers would choose to share if the goal was to help other teachers, more than two-thirds chose their success story.
Makes sense: We all like to look good, especially to people we don’t know.
Then the researchers asked hundreds of people to think of a time they had succeeded at staying focused at work, and a time they had been inattentive and failed to stay focused. When asked which story they would share in order to help other people be more focused, most chose the positive one.
Even when they were then asked to pretend they would be sharing a story with their “future selves.” Which makes a little less sense, aside from the fact we all like to look good to — meaning feel good about — ourselves.
And because we often don’t realize just how valuable sharing information about mistakes and failures can be.
To test that hypothesis, the researchers gave participants a simple task. Each was presented with three boxes and told to open two. One box contained 80 cents, one contained 20 cents, and one required the participant to pay a one cent fine. What the participants didn’t know is that the experiment was rigged so each person always opened the 20-cent box and the “losing” box.
Then they were told that, in order to help the next participant, they could share the location of one of the boxes.
What happened? Across a series of studies, between one-third and one-half of participants shared their success: The location of the 20 cent box.
Which makes no sense. Sharing the location of the 20 cent box left the next person with an even chance of selecting the 80 cent box or the “losing” box. By sharing the location of the losing box, the participant could ensure that the next person won either 80 cents or 20 cents. They could ensure the next person won something.
But they were evidently more aware of how they might be perceived than by how helpful they could be. As the researchers write, “One cause of this reluctance: People overlook the information in failure.”
Even though science proves the value of sharing failures so others can learn: Negative information commands more attention than positive information. Negative information is processed more deeply. Negative information is remembered longer.
Sharing your failures, sharing lessons learned, sharing cautionary tales… learning vicariously from other people’s mistakes and failures is not only a great way to learn, it’s a much safer way to learn.
Embrace Your Failures — and Share Them
Your past makes you who you are, but it doesn’t define you. Nor is it something to beat yourself up over.
Mistakes, miscalculations, missteps… each is a learning opportunity. The past is just training. Failure just informs your future.
So learn from your mistakes. Learn from your miscalculations. Learn from your missteps.
Think about what went wrong, but only in terms of how you will make sure that next time, you will know how to make sure it goes right.
And share that information with others. Make sure you help people around you know how to make sure a similar situation goes right for them, too.
While it might not be fun to be the focus of a cautionary tale, that’s okay. People will respect the fact you own your mistakes.
And they’ll definitely respect, and appreciate, the fact you’re willing to swallow a little pride in order to help them avoid making the same mistakes.
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