What is a mistake? When we make a mistake, what do we think that says about us? How do we feel about ourselves? And how does that framing affect what we learn from the experience?
In a recent article for Wired Jonah Lehrer discussed a soon-to-be-published study by Michigan State's Jason Moser that provides a neurological basis for understanding why some of us learn from mistakes more effectively than others:
[T]here are two distinct [neurological] reactions to mistakes… The first reaction is called error-related negativity (ERN). It appears about 50 milliseconds after a screw-up and is…mostly involuntary, the inevitable response to any [mistake].
The second signal, which is known as error positivity (Pe), arrives anywhere between 100-500 milliseconds after the mistake and is associated with awareness. It occurs when we pay attention to the error, dwelling on the disappointing result. In recent years, numerous studies have shown that subjects learn more effectively when their brains demonstrate two properties: 1) a larger ERN signal, suggesting a bigger initial response to the mistake and 2) a more consistent Pe signal, which means that they are probably paying attention to the error, and thus trying to learn from it.
[The Moser study] applied a dichotomy first proposed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. …Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset--they tend to agree with statements such as "You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it"--and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure--a sign that we aren't talented enough for the task in question--those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education...
It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes… Most interesting, though, was the EEG data, which demonstrated that those with a growth mindset generated a much larger Pe signal, indicating increased attention to their mistakes… What’s more, this increased Pe signal was nicely correlated with improvement after error, implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right...
...[U]nless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong--that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore--the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.
What I find most interesting and useful about Lehrer's analysis of this research is the connection it allows me to make between (on the one hand) the neurological evidence that people who devote more attention to their mistakes learn from them more effectively and (on the other hand) my own empirical experience as a coach that fixating on mistakes can be demotivating and lead to feelings of worthlessness, while focusing on successes can stimulate feelings of optimism and resilience, even (especially) in light of recent struggles.
Carol Dweck's research provides me with the missing link; the essential factor isn't the relative amounts of attention we devote to our mistakes and successes, but whether we're holding a fixed mindset or a growth mindset about ourselves and our capabilities. In the former case, we view mistakes as manifestations of our intrinsic character, as de facto evidence of our unworthiness--and so focusing on our mistakes generates feelings of shame and embarrassment and undermines our self-confidence. We go to great lengths to avoid these feelings under the best of circumstances, so it's no surprise that when we make a mistake while holding a fixed mindset, the very last thing we want to do is devote more attention to it--and so we lose the opportunity to learn from it.
But in the latter case, we view mistakes as external events, as unfortunate things that have happened. This isn't to say that we're avoiding responsibility for our mistakes, or that we don't feel bad as a result. As Lehrer notes, those of us who learn best from our mistakes actually have a bigger neurological response to a mistake. But we don't view mistakes as personal defects, and they don't carry such a negative emotional charge. I'd suggest that those of us who hold a growth mindset are able to forgive ourselves for mistakes and let go of (or at least mitigate) any feelings of shame or humiliation. This forgiveness allows us to continue to focus on the mistake that much more intently, without losing confidence in ourselves, and as a result to learn from it more effectively.
The underlying question then becomes: What can we do to cultivate a growth mindset that will allow us to focus on our mistakes without feeling shame or losing confidence? Many of my experiences with clients and students (and myself!) suggest that the first step is simply acknowledging any shame and embarrassment we do feel in the aftermath of a mistake, both to ourselves and to those around us. At the very least, getting those uncomfortable feelings out in the open tends to diminish their power and allows us to choose what to do with them, rather than feeling driven in some way to escape their covert influence.
I know that particularly when I'm in a leadership role two of the most important things I can do are 1) quickly admit a mistake once I've made one, and 2) own up to my resulting feelings of shame or embarrassment. This makes it much safer for those around me to do the same, and the group's potential to support learning increases dramatically. (And it's one reason why I encourage leaders to embrace mistakes, failure and surprises.) That's not to say I find this easy, even though I get plenty of opportunities to practice--but it is a value I try to uphold.
Thanks to @DanielCoyle for the initial reference to Lehrer's article.
Photo by Alex E. Proimos. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.