Failure gives you a chance to learn. When you make a mistake you can learn from that mistake and not make it again. Right? Well, yes, in theory. The problem with this approach is that failure triggers strong emotions and makes it very difficult to focus on the cause of the failure.
For example, let’s say that you were fired from a job. (Feel free to substitute your own big failure for this scenario.) When you think about being fired, your mind will focus on the emotional part of it–the being fired part, cleaning out your desk, walking out of the building, looking for a new job, etc. These are the things that are strongly branded in your brain because they contained the most emotion. Unfortunately, they don’t tell you anything about the events leading up to getting fired, and in the context of learning from mistakes, those are the events you should be looking at.
Even if you look at the cause for getting fired, you are unlikely to see the whole picture. If your boss said you were being fired for X, you’ll probably focus a lot of mental effort on that reason–even though it may be minor compared to everything else that was involved. Let’s say you were let go because of the economy. That doesn’t give you a whole lot to go on, but it is likely to become your focus instead of really digging deep and understanding the other reasons–reasons that you may have had some control over.
While you might have been let go because of the economy, if other people were retained, there were probably other reasons involved. Here are some potential reasons:
- Your boss sees you as a threat.
- Your performance isn’t as good as others’.
- Based on some of your comments, your boss thinks you are likely to leave anyway.
- You are a higher maintenance employee than others.
- Your boss has a romantic interest at work and you are standing in the way of that.
- You never built a relationship with your boss, so you were the easiest person to fire with the least amount of emotional pain.
The list could go on and on. Some things may be your fault, others may not be. Regardless, you can learn from the experience and do a better job of managing your relationships in your next position. However, your natural response is not to notice these things because it isn’t where your memory is fixated because it isn’t where the emotion occurred.
Here are some strategies for learning from mistakes and failures. Not everything will apply in every situation, but they all have their place and can be very useful.
1. Think about failures well in the past
Things that occurred a long time ago probably have lessened in their emotional sting and you may be able to better analyze things now It is going to be easier to see your faults in a high school relationship than in a breakup that occurred last week.
2. Ask others for help in understanding
Don’t do this unless you really want their input. For example, if you have a good friend at a job you were fired from who is familiar with the situation, ask if there are things you did or didn’t do that they can see that contributed to your failure. It may be hard to get this information from them, because they will probably assume you don’t really want to hear it.
Once they tell you, don’t argue. If you disagree, keep it to yourself. They are doing you a huge favor by breaking social norms and being honest with you. If you don’t think their perspective is valid, just set it aside. What may seem irrelevant today might be very useful a year from now.
This is a good strategy for smaller failures as well. If you got passed up for a promotion, sitting down with your boss and asking what you could have done differently might not be a bad idea. If you fail to sign a client for a deal, a call asking if there is anything you could have done better might yield some useful information.
3. Fail on your own terms
If you know something is going to fail and are certain you can’t prevent it, get out on your own so you don’t have to deal with the emotions of someone else telling you that you have failed. This will put you in a better mindset to analyze what went wrong.
I had a job where I was clashing a lot with the people above me. I tried to make some improvements, but eventually quit. While I doubt if I would have been fired, looking back now, I see some specific areas where I wasn’t recognizing the political game as well as I should have. Whether I decided to play along or not would have been my decision, but not recognizing what was going on was a huge failure on my part, and something I’m much more aware of now.
4. Look at the numbers
Where possible, look at actual data and numbers. It is easy to weight the causes for a failure based on where we felt the most emotional instead of on what really caused the failure. If you have numbers and statistics that you can analyze, it will help you see things in terms of objective truth rather than just how you feel about it.
No one likes to fail, but good can come from a failure where you learn something. Going through all the pain of a failure while learning nothing is the ultimate tragedy.