Learning from Our Mistakes

Seth Godin had a wonderful post earlier this week. Titled Lessons learned the hard way, Godin talks about the value of learning from our mistakes. Here is the full post:

It will be a long time before I spell “handkerchief” incorrectly. That’s because in third grade, I lost the entry round of the spelling bee to my friend Elisa because I got it wrong. Who knew that there was a “d”?

And now I know where I keep the thermos in my house. I spent twenty minutes looking for it the other day, and failed. A few days later, I came across it. Because of the previous challenge of missing it, my brain was on high alert when it finally appeared.

That’s how we learn most of the foundational things that we know, remember and care about–not through exposure, but through effort and failure.

That’s why tests aren’t nearly as useful as projects. Just about anything worth learning is worth learning the hard way.

Seth’s post immediately brought back memories from over 50 years ago, when I competed in our county’s spelling bee three years in a row. I still remember the three words I spelled incorrectly each year:

  • alibi (I spelled it alabi)
  • piccolo (I spelled it picollo)
  • sarsaparilla (who knew that first “r” was there?)

Like Seth with handkerchief, I’ll never misspell those three words again.

Here are two more examples of when I learned from a mistake/failure.

I had written a post a few months ago where I talked about my wife and I going for a picnic at a local memorial park which we thought was just a fancy name for a park. We quickly learned that it was a cemetery. Now when we pass a memorial park or garden we laugh about how clueless we were but also recognize that we learned from that mistake, and we will never make it again.

One final example is exercising with stretch tubes. I was using tubes that were pretty old, and I was outside working out with them. I had wrapped the tubes around the handle on the front door of our house, stood back a few feet, and began pulling the tube towards me. The tube snapped, I fell backward, and I ended up breaking both my wrists. I will never use exercise tubes again.

So as Seth notes, That’s how we learn most of the foundational things that we know, remember and care about–not through exposure, but through effort and failure.

Failures can be valuable lessons, as long as we learn from them…

52 thoughts on “Learning from Our Mistakes

  1. The dreaded spelling bee. In grade school, I was always the first to sit down. These days I use Siri. I may learn from other mistakes but I have yet to learn from spelling mistakes. I need to look a word up at least 40 times before I remember it. And that only happened once. The word was convenient.

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      1. I actually had to use it every day which is why I looked it up every day. It was years ago when I took a shorthand class. Every letter dictated had the word convenient or convenience in it. Every day for 10 months. No Siri back then. She would have been a great help.

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  2. Hi Jim, I have always felt I remember things that interest me the best. I love law and accounting and auditing rules and regulations. This is why I do regulatory work and head up that team at my firm. Spelling and me were never friends because I was taught to read using ITA. I was reading at 4 years old but never got to grips with spelling. Thank goodness for spellcheck.

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    1. I agree that it is much easier to remember things that we enjoy. Spelling came pretty natural for me, but I also practiced a lot for those competitions. Do I recall correctly that your children were also early readers?

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      1. Hi Jim, Gregory was an early reader. Michael had a reading barrier so getting him to read was a bit of a struggle. He listened to a lot of audio books during his many bouts of illness and this resulted in him having a very good vocabulary and above average comprehension skills. He is still a slow reader, but the audio books have made all the difference to his English and other marks at school.

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      2. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I could never get into audible books. I felt there was a high chance I would miss something if my mind wandered for even a couple of seconds…

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      3. I can see how audiobooks would improve my listening skills, but I’m thinking about the many people who listen to audiobooks while driving. It seems you wouldn’t be able to devote your full attention to both driving and the book, one of them would have to suffer a bit. And it would be a pain to keep having to “rewind” while driving…

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  3. I am a firm believer that some of our most valuable lessons come from our failures. I can think of a few instances in my life where I learned a lesson the hard way. The flip side is I’m unlikely to make those mistakes again and hopefully learned from them.

    I accompanied students from our school to the county spelling bee. At that level, the kid was eliminated after any mistake. I remember one student who had successfully spelled at least ten hard words correctly was eliminated when she forgot to start a proper noun with a capital letter.

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    1. Back when I was prepping for interviews, I was always ready for that question “What’s you biggest strength?” with the response “I never make the same mistake twice.” I’m not sure if I was ever asked the question, and I know my answer is not quite the truth, but it sounded like a good answer.

      And that’s a tough spelling bee where they count capitalization!

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  4. I sure remember to spell “address” with two d’s after a devastating elimination in a spelling bee. Thanks for the warning on the exercise tubes. My wrists are tingling and I think I have learned that lesson vicariously.

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  5. The “pain” associated with failure is the key for me. The disappointment sticks in my mind. Failure at things I don’t care about probably won’t teach me much because there is little disappointment. I fail at spelling all the time and on some words repeatedly.

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  6. You are so right about learning from our mistakes.
    I remember I was in the final 3 or 4 people standing in the 7th grade spelling bee. The winner got to go to DC for another competition. I got the word grammarian. I said m for the last letter. As soon as I said it I realized my mistake but it was too late. I was so upset, and I have never forgotten that word. I don’t use it but I haven’t forgotten it! I also didn’t forget the word that the person in front of me got. Church! Sooo not fair! LOL!

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  7. Great post, Jim! I loved your sharing of learning experiences from your life delivered with your usual touch of humor. I can now look back on a long life rife with failures as just an intense learning program. And who knew about that extra “r” in sarsaparilla?

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  8. I don’t think I’ve ever entered a spelling bee. They don’t seem to be such a big thing here. I do agree about learning from effort and failure. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind learning from success though. I wonder if that is possible.

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    1. that would be nice if we learn from success, and I certainly think that is possible, since it teaches us what works, and then we just have to continue to do that…

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  9. Loved this post and your raw honesty Jim. I’m sorry, but the visuals on you falling backwards using the tubes really made me laugh, although I know how painful that must have been. At least now I know how it happened. 🙂 I hope you’re healed?

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