On Learning from Our Mistakes

 In Binh Chung, Self-Empowerment

We all make mistakes. After all, we’re only human. While this is true, many of us still fear making mistakes. In fact, we fear it so much that we develop anxieties about it. Because we fear mistakes, we often become avoidant, procrastinate or distract ourselves.

Of course, what we most need to understand is that really, there is nothing to fear. Here are a few things to keep in mind, backed by research, which could perhaps ease our fear of making that blunder.

First, we need to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes. First described by researcher Elliot Aronson, the Pratfall Effect occurs when we observe someone, who we find likeable, making a mistake and because of their mistake, they seem more likeable to us. When you make a mistake, you show your vulnerability, your fallibility and in essence, your humanness. This effect shows us that as long as those mistakes are not critical, an occasional pitfall may actually help us. So really, our imperfections may be our best qualities.

Second, we must understand that we may be overthinking the reality of our mistakes. According to the Spotlight Effect, we often think that people notice things about us more than they actually do. When we make a mistake (usually one that warrants embarrassment or shame), we think people notice it when in fact, they may not even care. For instance, I was not paying attention and once walked right into a pole in the middle of a crowded mall. I blushed immediately and kept thinking that everyone was laughing at me. According to Gilovich and his colleagues, the researchers who originally studied this effect, the reason why we think everyone is paying such great attention to us is because we are exhibiting “anchoring and adjustment.” We are “anchored” in our own experiences such that we have difficulty “adjusting” far enough away to really estimate how much attention people are paying to us. The cold, hard fact is this: people don’t really notice our mistakes as much as we do!

Finally, we should view mistakes as learning opportunities. Studies have shown that how we react to our mistakes affects whether or not we learn from them. When we make a mistake, our brain either exhibits a “wake up call” response, where we analyze the situation and actively try to prevent a repeat of the mistake, or a shutting down response, where the brain chooses not to think about the mistake. The studies found that those who thought of intelligence as flexible showed the wake up call response while those who thought of intelligence as fixed showed the shutting down response. Additionally, researcher Jason Moser examined brain activities of participants as they made a mistake and found that those who learned from their mistakes were better off. They had brains that were able to recognize mistakes quickly and put an effort into a response.

To conclude, it is okay to fear making mistakes. But it is also okay to make mistakes. We should embrace our mistakes as parts of who we are and learn from them, because who knows, our greatest mistakes may lead us to our greatest successes.

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