How I Love Lucy was born? We decided that instead of divorce lawyers profiting from our mistakes, we’d profit from them.
Lucille Ball

Janice Dickinson, who British history mainly records as slightly less popular than Christopher Biggins, has said she sees herself as having been “shaped by my mistakes”. (We can’t find any interviews, but we’re sure that her plastic surgeons speak fondly of her in public too. Perhaps if she’d been in The Rocky Horror Show in her youth…?) Staying with the arts (and continuing the spirit of generosity), many musicians have spoken about their attitudes to mistakes. Miles Davis simply said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none”, while Ornette Coleman’s approach was perhaps a little more humble:

It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.

Coleman’s imply one common view of mistakes – that they are an opportunity for learning from direct experience, a way of finding out both about whatever area of life you make the mistake in and about yourself. (Indeed, in another corner of the arts, James Joyce called mistakes “the portals of discovery”.) With mistakes, a lot comes down to how you view them – both in the abstract and in the aftermath.

In the abstract sense, I mean accepting that they are inevitable. “To err is human”, as Alexander Pope wrote many centuries ago – although most people forget that the following words are “to forgive is divine”. Striving to be a little more divine with ourselves and with others, however, can pay dividends. While punishing themselves for their failings might be some people’s first impulse, seeing the mistake as something to be learned from and moved on from is more fruitful. (Perhaps this is what Miles Davis ultimately meant by saying there are no mistakes?) If it helps to cite a business guru rather than a philosopher to back up this point, here’s the viewpoint of Peter Drucker on human fallibility:

People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

In the longer run, the failure lies not in the ‘falling down on the job’, but in lying there bemoaning your own folly or incompetence. It’s easier to rectify a mistake standing up than it is by remaining face down in the carpet tiles. Equally, the fear of failure can be counter-productive: often driving by feelings of inferiority, the closing down of learning opportunities that the attitude provokes can turn those feelings into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This doesn’t just apply at the individual level: a fear of failure can apply to organizations and their culture too. Ponder the words of Gavin Bryars, English composer and double bassist:

It makes sense to invest in new work. It’s almost like having a research department in a scientific laboratory. You have to try things out. You’ll make some bad mistakes. Some things will fail but at least you’ll energise the organisation.”

It’s not exposure to the brilliance of others that helps us learn so much as exposure to our comparative lack of it: mistakes are an audit process that flag where modifications still need to be made. Or, to quote another composer (Igor Stravinsky):

I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”

Depending on how you interpret those words, there’s a potentially harsh lesson there for the L&D industry. The lesson becomes less harsh if you re-consider Stravinsky’s words in the light of one of L&D’s own biggest mistakes – thinking that learning happens in classrooms, and stops when the final bell rings. It’s practice that makes perfect, not simply the provision of a perfect example to model ourselves on, and practice is an incremental process.

Good learning design includes ample opportunity for exactly that practice element that compliments the theory and turns into the start of new – and better – habits. Even better learning design ensures that there are plentiful opportunities for practice after the event itself, and encourages organisations to understand that any learner needs encouragement and a network of supporting colleagues and peers to maintain their enthusiasm and motivation to turn their learning into a new daily reality. We’ve written in the past about the underlying model of our training philosophy, which draws on clinical research into treatment of addictive behaviours and the difficulty that nearly all of us have on tackling them single-handedly. If only 5% of us really do succeed without outside help, how does the L&D industry expect the other 95% of us to deal with the mistakes we will inevitably make as we try?

Staying with words of wisdom from the arts, film director Jim Jarmusch’s words explain why providing not just a safe place within learning events for practicing new skills and behaviours is so important, but underlines the role of peers and colleagues – and line managers in particular – in allowing the learner to actually develop their potential rather than being presented with images of what it might be:

I love rehearsing because in rehearsals there are no mistakes, nothing is wrong, some things apply or lead you to focus on the character and the things that don’t apply are equally valuable because they lead you to towards what does.”

Looked at this way, mistakes are a way forward, not a way down. As Samuel Beckett put it in Worstward Ho“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  And spare a thought for your approach to performance management too: you might want to read our earlier post about the Work Foundation report, Exceeding Expectations, and the points it makes about good leadership, interpersonal interactions and the value of leaving the recipient standing and willing to move forward when a problem arises. And, equally, the importance of seeking feedback on your own performance so that you can be clear about where your own mistakes lie. Be constructively and be timely – humble pie isn’t always the easiest dish to swallow, but its particularly unpleasant served cold. (Sticking with the nutritional advice, let’s acknowledge that the traditional side serving of revenge is entirely superfluous: it has no place in a modern working diet if long-term health is the objective.)

As long as the longer-term aim and objective is improvement, mistakes need not be your enemy: indeed, they could be a valuable friend. Cherish them not just for their human fallibility but for the chances they illuminate, and make room and allowances for them. As Mahatma Gandhi put it:

Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.

And if you’d like to pause for a couple of minutes and smile a little, the following video might make you appreciate mistakes a little more too:

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