Why Do We Make Mistakes?
If you want to grow as a person and learn about yourself you have to make mistakes.
Take any article or book on making mistakes and it will tell you about how wonderful the experience can be.
How you will become the person you want to be and how you can help others avoid the same pitfalls.
Sounds wonderful, right? Reading these articles inspires you to be in situations to make mistakes.
This is all fine until you actually make the mistakes.
I agree that making mistakes can be a wonderful learning experience.
I have made a ton of mistakes and I believe I’m a better person for the experience.
Why do we make mistakes and how can we prevent mistakes? Does a formula exist to help minimise the chance of mistakes happening?
How many times have you forgot a password or pin number? What happens when can’t remember a friend or colleague’s name? Why do we prepare for interviews yet go blank at the crucial moment?
Making mistakes is frustrating. The negative impact of making a mistake causes doubt to creep in. As a result your confidence is affected
Our brain plays a big part in why we make mistakes and we don’t even realise it is happening.
The origin of our mistakes is shown in many ways. We have bias and often it works on a subconscious level. We allow distractions to disrupt our day. We are poor at estimating how long a task will take to complete. These drivers create problems and we find it difficult to prevent mistakes.
The mistakes we make tend to be small fry. Yet there are many examples of high-profile and heartbreaking mistakes:
The Titanic – The crew ignored warnings of icebergs and we all know what happened next.
Euromillion Ticket – A man in England threw away a £120 million winning ticket, believing it to be old and worthless. His wife knew she had won as she plays the same numbers every week without fail.
Exxon Valdez – A drunk Captain Joe Hazelwood crashes the Exxon Valdez (an oil tanker) into the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. The tanker spills 760,000 barrels into the water.
Thankfully the mistakes you make don’t have the devastating impact outlined above. Whether mistakes are huge or small they will always have similarities on a basic level. These similarities allow us to explore whether there is a code we can use, something to stop mistakes from happening.
The Eyes Have It
What do some of these examples tell us?
Eyesight is a common reason for people making mistakes.
The way our brain processes images impacts what we see. The eye is not equipped to see everything and the brain tries to step in to help out.
The brain fills in the blanks with what it believes should be there. The brain makes mistakes, not always getting it right.
If you have ever missed seeing something you will know the tricks the brain can play.
Watch this short video as proof of how our brain and eyes play tricks on us.
Tip Of The Tongue
When we make mistakes and attempt to go again we have a tendency to slow things down.
We take our time, our concentration levels increase and we focus on getting it right.
This is why we tell our children to take it slowly. This is especially true if they have just thrown a cup of juice all down themselves!
The only thing with this approach is it rarely works.
Studies suggest rectifying the mistake immediately often results in the mistake being repeated.
The brain is trying to work out what went wrong and how to fix it. As a result it overloads and can’t process in the way it needs to.
If you leave the problem and come back to it the next day the chance of being successful increases.
I think sleep and the subconscious has a lot to do with it but I have not researched this particular element. This is why you sometimes feel differently about something if you have slept on it. If anyone has any links to sleep based learning I would love to check them out.
A similar phenomena happens when you have a name on the tip of your tongue.
The brain has the information but the pathways in your brain become confused. You want to say the name but the brain can’t send the information in the way it would like.
Forgetting about the information is often enough for the solution to present itself.
How satisfying when the answer suddenly pops into your head!
You would think this is enough to solve the problem the next time you need to recall the info? No.
The same pathways are still affected. The brain continues to dig and the tip of the tongue syndrome strikes again, leaving you confused.
One way around this is to say the word out aloud. This shifts the brains thinking and makes the recall easier the next time around.
Mistakes are a result of our psychology, physiology and our environment.
If we understand the triggers it may be possible to control and minimise making mistakes.
So, what common themes do we see when mistakes happen?
- Lack of communication – this is both how we communicate and how we check the understanding.
- Complacency – complacency covers issues of bias and the assumptions we make.
- Lack of knowledge – you don’t know what you don’t know and this can be dangerous.
- Distractions – we lose around 25% of our working day to distractions. As a result our work and decisions suffer.
- Lack of teamwork – if you work in silo or don’t get on with others you are likely to make mistakes.
- Stress and fatigue – you know the feeling if you have had a bad nights sleep. Errors creep in and you risk getting it wrong.
- Lack of resource – this covers different issues including money, time, people, materials. You attempt to compensate and you make mistakes.
- Pressure – have you ever tried typing with someone watching as you type. In the grand scheme of things this is not pressure but how many times do we mis-type?
- Lack of assertiveness – you wish you had spoken up. You now have speakers regret. This is your mistake.
- Lack of awareness – a lack of awareness to the people around us can cause you to misjudge the mood. Ever crack a joke when everyone is upset? Did it backfire?
When we recognise the above themes it is a warning sign that mistakes are likely to happen.
It provides an opportunity to expect what could happen.
Print and Repeat
Several years ago I wrote a booklet about coaching.
It was a guide my peers could use to coach and improve the skills of others.
I was under a tight deadline (pressure) and I was the only person working on it – by choice (lack of teamwork).
I knew the topic inside out. Comfortable I re purposed some earlier content (complacency).
I was dealing with several other challenging issues at the time (distractions) and did not ask for any help (lack of communication).
I printed over 100 copies and realised it had mistakes in the content. This was after I had ran it through a spell checker etc. I corrected the mistakes and reprinted. More mistakes.
Oh, I had also been working long hours and taking work home with me (fatigue).
I should have released each section of the guide and asked people to proof read it. I should have employed different proof reading techniques (using a ruler and going line by line, reading the text aloud and reading it backwards are popular techniques).
Different choices would have helped minimise the risk of mistakes and the costly printing.
Mistakes are not intentional but can have a wide-ranging impact on the people around you.
Making mistakes can also be soul crushing. Depending on your own personality they can take some time to shake off.
Although our brain definitely plays tricks on us there are strategies we can put in place to control.
We can’t rid ourselves of mistakes 100% but we can take action to lead a less mistake filled life.
So, what can we do to minimise the risk of making mistakes?
1) Get the right amount of sleep
I’m so grouchy in the morning. Increase this by ten if I have had a late night or enjoyed some red wine.
I don’t buy into those talking about grinding/hustling/crushing it until 3am. The same people getting up a few hours later to do it all again.
Long term it will lead to psychological and physiological issues. Your work will definitely suffer and mistakes will become more frequent.
2) Live in the moment
Be present and in the moment. So many of our mistakes come from distractions. The distractions are often self-created.
Don’t text in meetings. Don’t allow social media to impact efficiency. Listen to understand and not to speak.
Live in the moment. Soaking up every detail. Push the distractions to one side.
3) Set Clear Expectations
If you lead people how clear are your expectations? I went and sat with a member of your team could they tell me the top three things that are important to you?
If they can’t this suggests your communication is not clear and consistent enough. As a result they may end up on the wrong path. Their mistake won’t be intentional but it may have a big impact on the team and you.
What will you achieve today? What big projects do you have on the go? What important deadlines are coming up? Who do you need to speak to for support? What do your team need from you?
In other words, your to do list.
I have tried many systems. Ranking the importance and urgency of each item is one of the most effective ways of not dropping the ball.
Trying to keep everything in your head and checking it off mentally is a likely recipe for disaster. We have already seen how the brain distracts and tricks us.
5) What is Your Why?
Simon Sinek talks about this a lot and I have identified with it more and more in the last year or so.
You can tell your family what you do for a job and you can tell them how you do it but can you tell them why you do it?
I’m not talking about money I’m talking about your sense of purpose. What is the number one important thing for you and how does this transcend the way you lead your people?
Knowing this and being able to articulate your why will give you a focus. Developing this on a daily basis will help to cut the mistakes you make.
6) Ask Questions
On the whole we do not ask enough questions. This is because we make assumptions and believe we understand or we fear looking stupid.
As a result we make mistakes and trot out lines such as:
‘I thought I knew what you meant.’ Or ‘I was going to ask that question but I thought people would laugh at me.’
Ask questions. clarify, get a deeper understanding.
Get curious and kick those mistakes into touch.
7) Don’t repeat the past
If it hard to learn from your own mistakes then learn from those around you.
You will know their weak spots. You will have seen their mistakes. They may have even confided in you before their mistake becomes public.
What happened to them? How did the mistake happen (see the above table)? What contributed to them getting it wrong?
What can you take from their experience and ensure you do not do the same thing?
How can you help them prevent making the same mistake again? What could you teach them or support them with that could be of value?
The Main Bits
- We all make mistakes.
- Some are small tiny mistakes. Some are so huge that they become infamous and in tragic cases are the cause of death.
- The brain plays tricks on us, especially with our eyesight.
- Sleep is vital to feeling alert, focused and delivering without mistakes.
- Understanding and recognising the triggers that contribute to mistakes is important.
- We can’t rid ourselves of mistakes 100% but we can take action to prevent them.
What Will You Do Next
Mistakes can be a rich learning experience.
Making mistakes provides an opportunity to grow as an individual. We also develop skills that otherwise may have remain neglected.
At the start of this article I suggested this is great until the mistakes actually happen to you.
Mistakes don’t feel like a learning opportunity until time has passed. You gain some perspective, reflect on the lesson and improve.
Understanding the triggers for making mistakes means you still get learning opportunities.
The key is to focus on the future.
Know the triggers that can lead to mistakes. Be confident you can prevent mistakes from happening. Focus on what can be achieved and not worrying about failure.
I would love to hear about the changes you are making.
What triggers have resonated with you?
What can you do to prevent mistakes from happening?
Who could you help to make less mistakes in their life?