Mistakes and Failures: A Valuable Teacher or Blunt Force Trauma?

John Dewey famously said that “Failure is instructive.”  To that, I boldly say, maybe.  The point of this blog is to help you think differently about mistakes and failures in your life and indeed use them to help you grow.

Our Fear of Failure

Anyone reading this blog has probably experienced the fear of failure. Sadly, fear of failure oftentimes keeps us from taking even the most pedestrian steps toward the goals that we want to achieve. By trying to be perfect and altogether avoiding the instructive opportunity of failure, we keep ourselves from the most important opportunity of all. Growth. Think about it. In your life or in your business, you have had moments when you simply got lucky and things went right. Other times, despite your best efforts, you failed and learned from the experience. Of the two, which was more valuable to you in the long run? Dumb luck usually runs out. The things we learn and the competencies we develop stay with us forever. Therefore, overcome your fear of failure, try things even though you might fail, and be determined to learn from the experience either way.

Expect Mistakes and Failure

The last paragraph may sound good in theory, but it’s important that you live it in your daily life. When you are trying to grow and improve, developing a new investment strategy, growing your business, or trying to improve your physical fitness, it’s likely that you will make some mistakes along the way. For best results, plan for those mistakes. Anticipate that you will have setbacks or what you think you will learn won’t be absorbed perfectly the first time through. By expecting mistakes and some degree of failure, you are lowering your standards. You’re anticipating setbacks and doubling down in your commitment to learn from them and grow past them. It’s the ultimate tool toward success.

Beware of Failure’s Blunt Force Trauma

PLEASE don’t lull yourself into thinking that failure will, on its surface, be “instructive” (sorry John Dewy). Think about how many people you know who’ve made significant mistakes in their lives in how they run their business, invest their money, take care of their bodies, or take care of their relationships. How many people do you know who leave one relationship and immediately find one that is almost exactly the same as the one they had before? Many of the homeless people you pass on the street have experienced numerous difficult failures, only to find themselves continuing their current pattern.  Mistakes and failure are very painful, and to some degree, that pain should be “instructive.”  The pain of losing your money might drive you to improve your financial acumen, refusing to feel that pain again.  Failure to get in shape may result in a health scare.

If that fear or painful failure is truly instructive, you’ll change your life and do things differently, again learning new things that will help you grow.  If you don’t learn from your mistakes, those failures become a blunt force trauma. Blunt force trauma is a wound that comes from a violent collision, resulting in deep and penetrating damage. The message here is that learning from your failure allows you to recover and grow stronger. The failure to learn and grow makes the wound of mistakes penetrating, everlasting, and ever-damaging blunt force trauma in both your personal and professional lives.

How to be Instructive and Avoid Blunt Force Trauma

So how do you avoid the life-altering and debilitating “blunt force trauma” that can occur when we don’t learn from our mistakes? It’s simple, but not easy.  Here’s what you need to do.  First, expect your mistakes, as I said earlier. Secondly, develop a healthy respect for how devastating mistakes and failures can be, hopefully motivating you to engage with passion step number three. Thirdly, commit to learning new things and applying your new skills in the areas in which you have failed. Learn, apply, and then measure your new learning capacity. If you do this, you will feel amazing as you watch yourself develop the capacity that will keep you from feeling the pain of that failure again. It is with this commitment to learning that I end this blog with the sentence that followed the John Dewy quote that I began with:

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

-John Dewy

Here’s to your successes, your failures, and the learning and growing that goes with it.


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