What Did You Learn From Your Latest Mistake?

Have you watched a baby learn to walk? It’s a process full of mistakes. First it was standing. Falling. Standing again. Then taking that first step. Falling. Lots of falling. Lots of laughter. Lots of getting back up to try again. 

I remember learning to ride a bike. Same mistake process. Same trial and error. Same learning. Same exhilaration when I achieved the first wobbly ride. Within minutes it smoothed out and was the foundation of my cross country bike ride 45 years later.

We have become conditioned by society and our educational system to condemn mistakes as failure and, too often, we give up rather than experiencing mistakes as a necessary part of learning. Giving up rather than learning from our mistakes IS failure.

Not Yet.

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, says that rather than failure, we should think of our mistakes as the not yet learned.

 …if you get the grade “Not Yet”, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.

We don’t assume that a baby will never walk because he falls down. He has not yet mastered walking. A child falls off her bike many times because she has not yet learned to keep her balance.

Dweck has proven that this not yet mindset (Listen to her TED Talk) improves learning success in children and can help adults move out of their comfort zones to continue learning.

We NEED mistakes in order to learn. Mistakes mark the not yet that keeps us trying. It doesn’t take long for walking to become second nature. Once you learn to ride a bike, that balance memory comes back to you very quickly, even if you have not ridden a bike for 20 years!

Dial-up and High Speed Connections.

Our brains are made up of billions of neurons. Sitting around alone, these neurons don’t accomplish much. However, when one neuron connects with another neuron, a path is created. That first connection is like having a dial-up internet connection:  slow, takes a lot of energy and effort to connect. 

Trying anything new creates a new neural connection. Doing it again and again makes that connection stronger and faster. Trying something that doesn’t work (a mistake) still makes new connections. Each attempt at learning this new something (the not yet learned process) builds more connections to more neurons creating a robust network of neurons

Practice and experience reinforce the connections so that they work faster, with less effort and energy, similar to high speed fiber-optic internet that connects so much faster than dial-up service. The not yet learned process has become a learned thing. More paths and more complexity create a stronger, more flexible, faster brain.

Scientists refer to this as neural plasticity: the capacity for continuous change in our brain. And we have this capacity throughout our lives.

You CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

For a long time it was accepted that our brain’s ability to grow and learn new things declined as we got older. Many people accepted that we become forgetful and our senior moments increase as we age. But brain research has proven that this is not true. The plasticity of the brain continues, as long as we keep pushing out of our comfort zone to challenge ourselves. (I am referring to healthy undamaged brains.)

There is an awful lot that is going on in our heads. The brain is a very complex organism, but we CAN keep it growing throughout our life IF we:

  1. understand that mistakes literally mean we are creating new brain activity;
  2. adopt the NOT YET LEARNED concept that encourages us to continue to try new challenges and new experiences;
  3. accept our mistakes; and 
  4. try again!

This has been a powerful learning for me.

My mother used to say that there was no such thing as boredom only a lack of interest in learning. I will add to that statement – a lack of belief that we can learn.

Life Long Learning is not just an alliterative phrase. It has real meaning and hope.

To answer the title question: what have I learned from my latest mistake? Do not allow my inner critic to stop me from writing. Get the ideas down and fine tune the words later. This is a not yet learned process  for me, but I keep working at it.

What have you learned from your latest mistake?

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