The importance of mistakes and errors in achieving high performance
We have been reading a series of books about what at first appeared to be unrelated topics. Neuroscience, talent (or the lack thereof), checklists, decision-making, and high-performance teams (see list below). Many of these books will already be familiar to you – that is, if you are ‘Business’ and ‘Self Help’ book junkies like we are.
While not a common theme on the face of each book – an underlying principle in all of them is the importance of mistakes and errors.
Some couch the importance of mistakes in the guise of ‘deliberate practice’, some focus on ‘mistakes to be avoided’, while others talk about the ‘process of learning’. But fundamentally they are all talking about the same thing: mistakes and errors – plain and simple.
‘Deliberate practice’ is the process of pushing the boundaries of your abilities just past your own competence – so you make mistakes, and then deliberately correct those mistakes – and thereby improve your skill. Folklore (and some science) tells us that it takes thousands of hours of this type of deliberate practice to get really good at something. While many refer to the ‘10,000 hour’ requirement, other schools of thought push back on this concept, and point out that you can actually improve quite quickly and reach a level of competence in a much shorter period of time – provided your practice is the deliberate type, rather than just doing the same thing over and over again. (See, for example, Peak) You need to push beyond your current level of competence – and make mistakes.
The body of books on ‘avoiding mistakes’ attempts to assist us to learn and develop at the expense of someone else’s mistakes. It is a nice idea – see where others have gone wrong, and then go down a different path. However, what is apparent from the third group of books is that this actually does not work all that well.
The third group of books on neuroscience (and how we learn) is the most interesting in this series – because they tell us actually what a ‘mistake‘ is – and how and why it benefits us. They also explain why reading about someone else’s mistake is rarely useful in developing a new skill (although sometimes comforting).
We are not experts in neurophysiology, but apparently, when you make a mistake and become conscious of it, your body is flooded with hormones that make certain cells within your brain ‘plastic‘, i.e. capable of making new synaptic connections (and breaking old ones). By consciously acknowledging and studying the mistake at this ‘learning ready time‘, your brain is able to re-wire its understanding – and thereby improve.
What is interesting about these books is the case studies they highlight: The musical prodigy who slowly goes over and over a piece of new music, painstakingly correcting their own mistakes, rather than proudly playing the pieces they have already mastered. The sports star who watches video of their performance over and over again – not focusing on the winning shots, but the unforced errors. Or the artificial intelligence computer that beats the world’s best chess and backgammon players by applying algorithms that only focus on past wrong moves – not winning moves.
What this line of inquiry and observation highlights for us is the fundamental importance of mistakes in all things good and worthwhile.
The unfortunate part: We, like many of you, have not tended to be big fans of our own mistakes. In fact, we often make an art form out of hiding them, re-characterising them, shifting them onto someone else, and generally trying to ignore them.
Our education system also has a dislike for mistakes. Big red crosses and frowning faces when we get the math sum wrong or spell a word incorrectly. The last thing we want to do is associate anything good from this process – we want to move on and find some of those blue ticks and smiling faces. :)
There is also a physical reason for this general aversion to mistakes and errors – because the process of acknowledging and learning from your mistake is actually quite physically demanding and uncomfortable. We are wired to do what kept the majority of us alive, but in a small huddle, and on the Sahara. It also now keeps the majority of us in our middling-performance 21st Century ‘comfort zone’.
One interesting anecdote is an experiment that was done on children. Two groups of children were given a problem to solve. One group was shown their errors but were praised for their effort, while the other group were praised for their results (they were told they were ‘smart’). When given an even harder problem, the group praised for their efforts significantly outperformed the group praised for their earlier results. One group began to associate the physical process (and discomfort) of learning with positive reinforcement, while the other group became timid and invested in their ego.
So if you want to get better at something – or even excel at something – you need to get over your mistake aversion. You need to embrace your mistakes, put in place conscious systems to pick up and analyse your mistakes, and generally learn to love them.
When was the last time you heard about an entrepreneur who never failed before becoming a success? Never. In our experience, there are only two types of entrepreneurs – those who have failed and not got back up, and those who have failed and then got back up to go on to success. Those that have learned from their past mistakes.
If you want to build and nurture a high-performance team, then you need to create an environment that:
- Allows for people to make mistakes in a protected environment; and
- Tolerates mistakes and errors – but on the condition the mistakes are ‘owned’ and used as conscious learning and performance-enhancing experience.
You need to take regular time out of your team’s schedule to talk about mistakes and errors, analyse how they occurred, and discuss how they can be avoided in the future – what pilots famously refer to as a post-flight ‘de-brief’, or the army refers to as an ‘after-action brief’.
Yes, you need to celebrate your wins. But even more importantly, you need to dwell happily on your mistakes. Only from the conscious study of your mistakes will you reach your true potential.
Peak. Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (Anders Ericsson was the guy who wrote the original paper on the ‘10,000 concept’. He believed this was misinterpreted by Malcolm Gladwell in his Outsiders book. See also The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance edited by Anders Ericsson et al.)
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
The Art of Learning: An inner journey to optimal performance, by Josh Waitzkin
The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes up its Mind, by Jonah Lehrer
The Ten Commandments for Business Failure by Donald R. Keough
The Biggest Bluff: How I learned to pay attention, master myself, and win, by Maria Konnikova
The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge
The Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedantam
Sway – The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour, by Ori and Ron Brafman
The information contained in this post is current at the date of editing – 19 June 2023.