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How To Make Mistakes: Another Difference Between Successful & Unsuccessful People

Don't just accept mistakes & learn from them - chase them

Don't just accept mistakes & learn from them - chase them

When you read studies done after-the-fact about some of history’s biggest mistakes, such as the Bay of Pigs and Enron, you’ll often see the phrase, “the smartest guys in the room.” What the study-ers are trying to get across is that somehow a group of highly qualified and perhaps overly influential advisers managed to convince those who actually made decisions to take actions that ended up in destructive disaster. Each of us in our smaller and admittedly less-global-catastrophe-potential worlds probably encounter demonstrations of ‘smartest guy in the room’ behaviour’ too, possible even being demonstrated by ourselves!

You’re at a meeting. Someone is talking. You don’t get what they’re saying or they use some terms you’re not familiar with. BUT you don’t ask for explanation. Maybe you hope it’ll become clearer in time or with more context. Maybe you ask a weak question like, “Excuse me Bob, but for the benefit of the people in the room who aren’t experts on xyz, can you please explain…?” Driving some of that behaviour is fear of looking like you don’t know what you’re supposed to. It probably goes back to primary school or earlier. Might be some mommy issues in there too. Hey, I’m not judging you man.

These days I train, present to or even entertain groups of people from an incredibly varied range of careers, industries and associations. These people, in their own arenas, are experts, geniuses in the sense that Malcolm Gladwell or Jay Niblick write about. Maybe they’re not rocket scientists but in their field of bovine stomach enzymes, they are the smartest guys in the room, if not the world. Or geniuses about concrete or lab testing or motorsports or whatever it is my client de jour specialises in. Almost always, around these people at these events, I am the dumbest guy in the room. I get to ask innocently ignorant questions and not only do I not get mocked for my lack of understanding about bovine stomach enzymes, I get a handheld tour of all things cow-stomachy. And I learn. I’m a little sad that it’s only recently that I apply this approach to all my dealings.

This Wired article by Jonah Lehrer applauds the potential for mistakes as learning development tools.You can picture the scenes. Volunteers are plugged into EEGs. Brain activity is measured. Subjects experience mistakes. What happens inside their heads at the point they realise they’ve made the mistake and in the time afterwards? And how did things turn out for people with different readings? Go read Jonah’s story but long-story-short: when the mistake occurs there is a ‘ERN’ signal which is short, followed by a longer ‘P-e’ signal. In my terms, the former is the brain saying, “@#$%!.” The second is a period of heightened awareness and attention. This makes sense. I almost fell off a chair so I snap to attention and engage in non-chair falling activity a lot more consciously. The associated research shows that more successful people tend to have not so much longer but more pronounced ERNs and longer P-e’s.

There you go. Apply that in your life and get better results. Um, how? Doesn’t this brain stuff just happen to us like our height? Nope, it happens to us like muscle development. We go to gyms and run up hills to build up our strength. To work on our ERNs and our P-e’s, we need to exercise them. How? By proactively making more mistakes… (Let’s not do that whilst driving. Let’s agree to go do something that’s safe but challenging. Me, I’m teaching myself guitar. Once again, I’m the dumbest guy in the room.)

So, to paraphrase New Zealand’s anti-drinking campaign, it’s not THAT we’re making mistakes, it’s HOW we’re making mistakes.

Fail better; Feel better.

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