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Day 20: on failure

Posted on 3 mins read

As much as we can learn by doing good work or watching others do great work, there’s no replacement for the teachings and wisdom we can get from failures. That we fail is not a secret. Everyone does, at some point or another and in majestically different ways. But failure alone won’t teach you anything other than the fact that you made a mistake, or took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Real learning comes from analyzing how, when and why you failed to begin with.

How we fail

Two things stood out in today’s Apprenticeship Patterns chapter. The first one is the following quote, on retrospective:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” Retrospective.com (now archived)

Now, think of doing that about your own experiences. We are the worst critics of past versions of ourselves, because it’s too easy to lose perspective of what we were at that point. Instead we should assume that we did the best we could, so we can objectively find places where we would have been able to improve, given our current knowledge. And then, we can compare those past failures to today’s and see how far along we’ve come. This will provide us with an accurate view of the ways we failed in the past, and the ways we currently fail. If we compare them and find out that we’re still falling for the same traps and making the same mistakes, then that means that we found an area of improvement in ourselves.

Failing is not enough. We have to objectively and meticulously figure out how it is that we fail. The steps that lead us to commit mistakes, the mindset that doesn’t allow us to see further or whatever the reason is. If we can’t figure it out, then it isn’t worth anything, and we’ll be sure to keep on doing more of the same.

We should learn to fail by design: turn failure into a study method. Take a mistake you made in the past and try to reproduce it. While doing that, write down a list of reasons why that happened and try to add a way to solve each of them, one by one. Then, see if that list can draw you a map of mistakes that piled up and see if you can find an encompassing solution for the entire thing. Even if you’re not sure it’s the right solution, the act of thinking how to solve problems will lead us to easily identify said problems in the future, and that is valuable in itself.

Next time you look at your past self and feel appalled at how low your skills were, or the big mistakes you made, just remember that you did your best in the conditions you were in. And all of that turned you into what you are today, as will your current self propel you into what you wish to become.

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