Questions that have the power to help us learn from mistakes

With my notebook and a pencil within reach, I’m ready to listen to the lecturer. At the outset, we, the audience, are asked: “What is the biggest mistake that you recently made?” The speaker requests us to ponder this question alone, and then share our answers with our neighbour. To my surprise, my brain gets bogged down. I try to find the right ‘drawer’ in my memory to track down my mistakes, but can’t find the place where I store ‘failures’. Let alone the exact location where I keep the big mistakes. My neighbour experiences similar troubles. Not being able to answer this seemingly simple question is an unusual experience for us. Especially because we both know how important ‘learning from mistakes’ is, as we are both researching this exact topic.


When you are gifted, you can do it, right?

The lecture that I’m at is organised by the School of Life in Amsterdam. They invited philosopher and journalist Matthew Syed to speak about learning from mistakes. He views failures as sub-optimal outcomes and regards them our biggest catalyst for learning. ‘Failures set us in motion’, he says. He shares a personal example to illustrate his point. Syed played table tennis on a professional level. At a certain moment he interviewed a former pro tennis player. Syed challenged him for a tennis match, which, he assumed, he would easily win. “I am much faster for having trained as a table tennis player”, thought Syed, “so I’ll beat a tennis player any time.” His underlying logic: tennis courts are bigger, so there is more time to catch a ball than at ping-pong, so tennis players are used to a slower game pace.


Over-confidently, he starts the tennis match, and…. was utterly defeated. While he was still observing his opponent’s service, and while he was trying to follow the direction of the ball, he was already overtaken by the ball. Before he could even move, he heard the ball hit the wall behind him. He couldn’t understand what happened, and felt rather uneasy about this whole game. He therefore started his own investigation. Together with an expert he watched video-recordings of the match, analyzing it carefully. That is when he discovers something interesting…. The expert could tell that Syed had no chance at all catching the ball. In order to catch it, ‘looking’ is more important than ‘speed' - which he always thought of as his special talent. In tennis, he looked at the wrong places in the wrong time, an thus always was one step behind. This challenged his yearlong assumption that it was his speed that helped him win all his table tennis awards.


Big questions require a step-by-step approach

After this, Syed concludes that his table tennis success is more related to many years of high-quality practice and not so much to a specific talent. Continuing his quest, he then stumbles upon the idea of the learning oriented mindset versus the performance oriented mindset. This provides another piece of the puzzle. If you believe in the myth of talent (you either have it or you do not -> a ‘fixed mindset’) then you will always be afraid to make mistakes. Whereas, if you believe in the power of deliberate practice (you can constantly improve -> a mindset directed to continuous improvement) you can keep on going attaining extraordinary results. Syed immediately recognized that he had a mindset focused on growth. And that mindset was, perhaps even more than his observational skills or his speed, the biggest factor contributing to his success in sports.
“Learning is our engagement with complexity”, says Syed. “When you’re always on the lookout for opportunities to attain the objective, you learn”. Whether it is to become a tennis pro or to solve a complicated problem such as improving patient safety in hospitals: you can never solve it in one go. Solving these intricate and complex questions requires a step-by-step approach with which you trigger marginal gains each time. You continuously learn from the mistakes and, in the end, this leads to success. An inquisitive and curious attitude is crucial to deal with these complex situations effectively, he says.

‘Words create worlds’

I recognize Syed’s story and can relate easily to the idea of a step-by-step approach, and going forward by small marginal gains. But something keeps bothering me: when learning from mistakes is so important, why do I have difficulties answering the question about my own recent mistakes? I get the idea that language, and words play a crucial role in this. The words you choose determine how something ‘enters’ your head. Compare these sentences:

  • “And then somebody made a mistake”.
  • “And then someone did something that no one expected”.


Depending on which of these sentences you would begin a story with, it would be a completely different text. Even when it is about the same event. I suspect that for me, the search for a ‘mistake’ is equivalent to searching for something ‘wrong’, something ‘stupid’ that really should not be there. I would rather forget stupid and wrong things than that I store them somewhere easy to retrieve in my head. Asking directly for mistakes can often block the conversation. In the research we are conducting at this moment in Germany, South-Africa and the Netherlands, in order to learn more about how people learn from mistakes, we have noticed this as well.

Useful questions to detect errors

My assumption is that, in order to talk about errors, and in order to detect them and learn from them, we need new access points. We need ways to get access to those ‘suboptimal outcomes’. Using literature and my experience in various practices, I so far found five ways to track down ‘mistakes you can learn from’. Without having to ask the question: “When did you make a mistake?”
When did something happen that was different from what you expected?
This helps you to trace ‘action-errors’. These are not so much the analytical errors people could make in a particular line of reasoning, or linguistic errors, but rather the mistakes that occur when one unintendedly deviates from a set plan or goal. See Frese & Keith (2015).
What good idea of yours could use some improvement in practice?
The type of mistake that this leads to is a ‘nearling’. A nearling - a not existing word - is something you have done, that has not led to the desired result. Or, as the word says, not yet, but nearly. You feel that you are on to something, but that an additional action is needed. See Doornbos and, for example, Ramon Vullings via
How much do you know about the impact of the work you do?
This question helps you to detect your ‘blind spot’. Blind spot is a biological term that refers to a piece of retina at the back of the eye where there are no sensory cells. At this location, we are effectively ‘blind’. Together with some colleagues at Kessels & Smit, I started systematic research into the impact of our work. See this blog with references to the investigation. Knowing where you have the desired impact, and knowing where that is not the case, helps to trace your blind spots.
How do you and your colleagues ensure that you continually adjust your approach and become smarter along the way?
If you would like learning from mistakes to be a part of your daily work you need to develop an approach for this. Often, people who developed such an approach, don’t refer to ‘mistakes’ at all. They call it, for instance, an experiment that did not lead to success or a prototype which helped you understand what users don’t want. See this article about experimenting as an approach to change by Tjepkema (2010, in Dutch). And read more about prototyping as a way for instructional design (Nieveen, 1999).
For which of the tough questions that concern you, do you try to find solutions by ”stumbling forward”?
The question that was asked at the beginning of the lecture encouraged me to detect a "big mistake". My brains blocked because I could not find the right ‘drawer’. For me, the definition that Syed gives of an error, namely a "sub-optimal outcome," makes sense. (See this article). There are so many issues that I'm dealing with and for which I haven’t found the perfect solution yet. Issues with which I muck about hoping to get ahead. Such as: How do I prevent the unread reading material in my bookcase from piling up? How can I handle the endless stream of e-mails diligently but also make sure it does not cost me too much time? Thinking in "sub-optimal outcomes" is in my opinion a very useful input in order to trace "big mistakes".
This blog is part of a series of weblogs about learning from mistakes. We are conducting research on this subject and write about it. For more information send a message to Suzanne.