It’s that time of year when people look back and reflect over the past year and begin looking forward to the year ahead. People often ask you about your New Years resolutions and debate whether setting them is even a good idea.
Whatever your plans are for the next year – whatever is particularly important for you to achieve over the coming months, there is often one thing that people have in common.
Once people have made a plan, they want everything to unfold perfectly. They don’t want to experience setbacks, or make any mistakes or errors and if they do, they can spend a lot of time beating themselves up and blaming themselves about it. Sometimes they decide to just forget the whole thing altogether.
In the words of Homer Simpson, “You tried and failed. The lesson is never try”!
This stems from the mistaken belief that in order to progress successfully, you have to get exactly the results you want at every stage of the process and that any mistakes along the way are a sign of failure.
Is that really true? Are mistakes really a sign of failure?
When you look back at your most successful achievements to date, were you getting exactly the results you wanted at every stage of the process of achieving those successes?
If you think about it, when a child is learning to talk, although they make many mistakes as they pronounce certain words and form sentences they are already in the process of learning to talk successfully.
Making enough mistakes to learn and progress is the same process that everyone goes through when learning to walk, talk, read and write. In fact, this is the same process people go through to learn to do pretty much everything successfully.
One of the key differences between children and adults though, is that children look out for things that are fun and enjoyable and then all they care about is doing them again and again and again. This just happens to be an extremely successful way of approaching learning.
In contrast, adults have the tendency to only start something if they can guarantee that they will do everything perfectly from the word go, which just happens to be a much less successful way of approaching learning.
Apparently, the word mistake comes from a term used in archery, which provides a useful way of thinking about mistakes. The archer aims at the target and fires the arrow. If the arrow does not hit the point on the target the archer aimed for that is a ‘mis-take’. The archer then does a ‘re-take’.
The difference between the point on the target the archer hit and the point they aimed for tells them exactly how much they need to adjust in order to get closer to hitting their target.
So, mistakes can be a potentially useful source of information enabling you to adjust what you’re doing to get closer to hitting your target.
Is gaining the very information you need to continue progressing even more successfully really a sign of failure then?
The process of adjusting is not even necessarily occurring consciously. When you were learning to ride a bike, the first time you actually rode for a few seconds balancing on your own, you didn’t really know what you were doing differently but somehow you were able to do it now, after days of falling off.
Realising that mistakes are part of the process of progressing successfully also enables someone to focus on mistakes at the right time.
If you watch a great sporting genius like Roger Federer, even he doesn’t necessarily do absolutely everything perfectly in the Grand Slams he wins in spectacular style.
The nice people from the TV will even display a table with the stats during the match including the number of unforced errors he made. ‘Unforced errors’ translate as, “the number of mistakes Roger Federer made caused by no-one else other than himself”. Talk about a blame culture!
One of the many qualities that Federer displays whilst playing is his ability to continue progressing successfully throughout a match even if he makes mistakes or experiences setbacks early on. He doesn’t dwell on mistakes during the match and they never interrupt his flow.
This is near to impossible to achieve if someone sees every mistake as a failure.
If you hear him interviewed after the match he describes in detail the aspects of his playing he was happy with, as well as the aspects of his playing that didn’t match the high standards he demands of himself.
Someone like Federer will then use the information he has gained from this experience to continue developing and fine-tuning his skills during the weeks that follow.
Federer focuses on mistakes after the match, not during the match.
In contrast to this, someone who believes mistakes are a sign of failure focuses on the mistakes at the wrong time.
You can clearly see when a tennis player believes this. Every time they make a mistake they beat themselves up about it because they see it as a failure. This means they dwell on every mistake whilst they are playing, which is a major contributing factor in losing them the game.
If you hear them interviewed afterwards, they’ll often say, “I just want to forget about today”. After all, if mistakes are a sign of failure, why would someone even want to think about them?
That player focuses on mistakes during the match and they don’t focus on them afterwards.
Without using the information they’ve gained from this experience though, it’s unlikely they’ll progress as successfully as they otherwise could.
Ahead of winning her Olympic Gold medal at the London 2012 Games, Jessica Ennis-Hill was asked how she had handled setbacks along the way, to which she replied,
“Setbacks strengthen your desire and show you where your slight weaknesses are. Any defeat is going to make you focus and work that little bit harder, but I don’t dwell on it. I focus on myself and work at making my strengths and weaknesses better.”
So, as you look forward to the kinds of things you want to achieve over the coming year, how will you use the information you gain from every experience to continue progressing even more successfully?
Think like Jessica & Roger, not like Homer.
Enjoy your year!
© Mike Cunningham 2015