No one escapes making mistakes. They’re just part of the human experience, right from infancy. We learn to walk by falling, and through many falls we learn how to avoid them. Skiing, skating, and bicycle riding are learned in a similar way. In all of these it was by recognizing our mistakes, and learning from them, that we mastered the skill—even if we couldn’t, as children, articulate in words exactly what those mistakes were. In other words, the mistakes we made became lessons that taught us how to avoid a painful repetition. Because we were so intent on mastering the skill, we didn’t allow these mistakes to put us off or make us give up; we didn’t treat them like failures but like stepping stones to success, which is exactly what they were.

How is it that when we grow older, we lose this wisdom of our youth? Somewhere along the line, we stop experiencing mistakes as lessons that teach us how to avoid repeating them. Of course, mistakes that are not identified and remembered are of no use; they’ll only be repeated and produce the same pain all over again. It’s only when we recognize and remember our mistakes, and make a point of learning something from them, that they can contribute to the success we’re seeking. Let me give a few examples.

I was asked to be present as a consultant at a corporate five-year planning session attended by the corporation’s leadership. A wonderful PowerPoint presentation showed all kinds of well-drawn graphs and colourful charts indicating anticipated profits and expansion. Feeling that something was missing, I asked for a list of the mistakes made during the last couple of years. I received no such list, only surprised and questioning looks.

Was it because no mistakes had been made? No; it was because they were not thought to play any kind of positive role in planning future growth. I explained that failure to clearly identify their past mistakes would lead to the likelihood of repeating them, and that it was well worth the time to identify those made during the past year or two as well as the costs associated with them. When they did so, the value of the exercise became obvious to them. In going back over the mistakes and the resulting costs, the corporate leaders realized that no action had been taken to avoid a repeat, and that doing so could add substantially to growth and profits in the years to come.

Inattention to mistakes in relationships is the reason we keep making the same ones over and over, resulting in the breakup of marriages and other partnerships and friendships. Mistakes unidentified will be repeated; mistakes recognized, acknowledged as such, apologized for, and accompanied by the resolve not to repeat them become lessons that produce needed change, which in turn produces the success we are in pursuit of.

Football coach Paul Bryant says this about mistakes: When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, and don’t repeat it.”

I applied my heart to what I observed,
and learned a lesson from what I saw.     —Proverbs 24:32