The merit of mistakes

The merit of mistakes

From the School Counsellor

The Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch said ‘To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future’. As reassuring as this sounds, in life and academia, making mistakes tends to be avoided rather than embraced. The idea of purposefully doing something that often results in negative feelings such as shame, guilt or embarrassment, is counter-intuitive. The fear that mistakes will inevitably lead to failure or a catastrophe, helps to cement mistakes in our minds as potentially dangerous and harmful. However it seems that ‘making mistakes’ has a poor reputation that is neither accurate nor deserved.

In July this year, a group of academics from elite educational institutions in France hosted a ‘Festival of Errors’ in Paris with a rather unusual mission— students were encouraged to make as many mistakes as possible in order to counter the idea that mistakes are negative.  A series of science-based workshops demonstrated the wonder of making mistakes and allowed students to find success in failure.  Also in July this year, research by Kornell, Hays and Bjork (2009) looked at the advantages of learning through error and found that getting the wrong answer helps students remember the right one. The process of trying to work through a problem focuses their attention on the critical concepts to be learned in a way that simple study does not.  They confirmed that when we struggle to learn something and fail, the moment we finally get the answer imprints itself more deeply on our mind than it would have had struggle and failure not preceded it.

It is commonly accepted that academic learning is most successful when it is active and personal. Learning comes alive when, rather than passively and uncritically receiving information, a student is able to explore, engage, question, reflect and collaborate her way to discovering the answer. If a student is not afraid of failure, she will feel free to engage in serious intellectual play, using her curiosity, imagination, creativity and inventiveness. Grappling with an idea in a supportive environment allows a student to clarify knowledge and develop analytical and critical thinking skills and, crucially, gives her confidence in her own mental abilities.  

Observation on the human condition led George Bernard Shaw to support the idea of making mistakes when he said ‘A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life doing nothing’. Can making mistakes serve an equally important and beneficial function in our personal and social ‘learning’ and lives? Of course the answer to this question depends on the type of mistake made and the ramifications of the mistake. It is important to acknowledge that not all mistakes are positive learning experiences. Outside the controlled environment of education there is a greater potential for mistakes to have more major, damaging consequences but the consideration of those mistakes is outside the range of this discussion.

If it is accepted that making mistakes is part of how we learn about ourselves, we can expect mistakes to have an increased role and importance during adolescence when identity and the development of a sense of the self take centre stage. With a consciousness of the irony of using a treatise on tyranny to describe adolescent development, it is possible to use Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince, ‘There is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things’. Adolescence is a time when a new order of the self is being established, when uncertainty and insecurity, coupled with a growing intellectual capacity to question received ideas whilst developing their own, will result in the adolescent getting many things wrong. Just to complicate things, embarrassment, anger, ambivalence and guilt, all natural human reactions to making a mistake, can be more fiercely felt during adolescence. Self blame can feel unbearable and there will be a strong desire to deflect, deny or avoid blame. However, allowing the adolescent to slip away from acknowledging and managing the consequences of their choices and decisions will prevent them from learning important life lessons.  

Adolescents will make many, many mistakes. Parents will feel worried, angry, disappointed (the parental emotion most adolescents find hardest to bear), and hurt. When mistakes are made, parents will often find it difficult to remember that these provide an opportunity for the adolescent to come out of a situation stronger, wiser and more capable. The knowledge that the adolescent can use the mistake to work out how to go forward and make a better choice next time may not be of much comfort to the parent at the time. It can be helpful, once the emotion has settled and there is a chance for calm discussion, to approach whatever happened with genuine enquiry and curiosity.  As a parent one could explore how the decision was made, what reasons, beliefs, values or aims underlay the decision, so that parent and child might understand how she arrived at the point of making the mistake and how it might have been avoided in the future. The trick is to try to assist the adolescent to take advantage of the details of the mistake, so that their next attempt will be informed by it. The hope is that learning from their relatively painless mistakes will help them avoid committing the awful variety.

Author J. K. Rowling talked about the benefits of failure in a commencement address she delivered to Harvard University students in June  2008. She said, ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default. Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations and taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. The knowledge that you have emerged stronger and wiser from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself or the strength of your relationships until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift …  Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes’ [my emphasis]. Rowling draws attention to the important added dimension of mistakes made in relationships. These mistakes can be especially difficult things to think about and manage. Whether between a parent and child, friends, family members, or colleagues, good relationships are built on the development and maintenance of trust and respect and when a mistake occurs both are jeopardised.

Mistakes made in relationships hurt, sometimes a lot. Whether the mistake is acknowledged and how it is responded to and dealt with by the one who erred and the one who was erred against will determine the amount of lasting damage done to the relationship. The courage to admit mistakes teaches humility and develops self-learning. Iris Murdoch’s (1970) conception of humility is particularly apt here: ‘Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues'(p. 95). As well the humble acknowledgement of the mistake by the one who erred, the rebuilding of trust will also require forgiveness by the one who was erred against. Trust and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin —it is only by trusting someone that we can forgive them. This is not to say that there should be any confusion between forgiving and condoning—forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, excusing, justifying, agreeing or condoning. Forgiveness may allow trust to be regained, but equally, trust may be so damaged that the relationship does not survive.  Whether the outcome is sorrowful or joyous, the experience will have been worthwhile if it is used as an opportunity to learn something about ourselves because development, at whatever age, is founded on the capacity to go on engaging with experience.

The words of noted American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C Dennett (1995) summarise the benefits of mistakes in our intellectual, personal and social learning—’Instead of shunning mistakes, I claim, you should cultivate the habit of making them. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. You should seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.’

Ms K Belbin


Dennett, D. C. ‘How to Make Mistakes’ in How Things Are, J. Brockman and K. Matson, eds., William Morrow and Company, New York, 1995. pp. 137-144.

Kornell, N. Hays, M. and Bjork, R. ‘Unsuccessful Retrieval Attempts Enhance Subsequent Learning’. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 2009, Vol.35, No. 4, 989-998

Machiavelli, N. The Prince and The Discourses.The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1950, Page 21, Chapter VI

Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge, 1970.

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