The Marble in A Field of Grass – Learning from Mistakes

Have you ever had that icky feeling that comes when you know you’ve made a mistake? A beautiful concoction of anxiety, guilt, shame, humility and anger – at least this is typically what shows up in my cocktail. Mistakes happen – systems issues, process slips, political misjudgments, interpersonal breakdowns… And it’s never easy.

We hear it all the time: the best learning comes from mistakes. And when we fail to learn from mistakes, failure sets in. But trying to glean that learning is a bit like trying to find a marble in a field of grass that hasn’t been mowed in a month… when you’re IN it, it sucks.

Last week I made a mistake, an interpersonal mess actually, and I am reminded of how critical that moment is: once the realization hits that you could have and should have done something differently. This moment-in-time is the proverbial fork in the road. It’s the choice point between truly embracing a learner mindset or going straight downhill towards the sh*t-pit.

And let me tell you, the sh*t-pit is no fun. It’s filled with self-doubt, blame and shame – all mindsets that actually inhibit learning… so if we really want to glean the learning, it starts with giving yourself some grace… to be vulnerable and courageous enough to admit it, digest it and learn from it.

And what does this mean for leadership?

As a leader you have the ability to shape that learning moment for your employees. It’s also a choice point for you. Will you jump to blame or judgment, or will you pause and inquire to help facilitate the learning? (And, by the way, “Why did you do that?” isn’t true inquiry… it’s judgment disguised as a question!).

A miss I commonly see with leaders is not giving the time required to debrief mistakes… thinking that asking “what would you do differently next time?” is enough. To truly deepen the learning, and build competence and resilience, takes asking some powerful questions. These are questions that serve to deepen awareness and advance learning, questions like:

  • What is it like for you to have made this mistake?
  • What are the impacts – good and bad of having made this mistake?
  • Tell me about the learning you’re doing as a result of this mistake.
  • Where else might this learning relevant for you?

Mistakes can be a breeding ground for learning. It starts with getting curious and asking the right questions.

Where have you learned from mistakes? Any stories to share?

e-musings resource suggestion:

  • Change Your Questions, Change Your Life by Marilee Adams. This book highlights the power of bringing curiosity into relationships – with others and with yourself. Marilee’s method, called QuestionsThinking is a way to ask the right questions, leading to better results and better relationships.

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7 thoughts on “The Marble in A Field of Grass – Learning from Mistakes

  1. “…it starts with giving yourself some grace.” Love this, Erin.Too often, we want to brush our mistakes and failures under the rug and move on as quickly as possible. This is a great reminder—painful as it may be—to pause in the vulnerability, ask those tough questions and embrace the learning.

  2. Ahhh very similar to the questions I ask kids after causing harm to someone….how do you feel about the incident? Who has been affected and how? What do you think needs to be done to move forward?
    I like the last question you asked “where else might this learning be relevant to you?”. It shifts you out of the here and now mindset and allows you to see beyond the “mistake”.

    1. I bet there is so much to learn in business from the principles of harm reduction. A whole other blog post could be on that… or on accusations… or apologies!!

  3. Hi Erin! I’m loving your blog. This post comes with especially good timing. I’m 3 days out of an event and while I continuously read my production schedule over and over always finding one more gap that I still have time to fill, I’m mentally starting the preparation knowing that come event day… there are still going to be things I’ve forgotten and mistakes that will be made. I have been reminding myself that mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities to learn something. Sounds cheesy (even when I say it to myself), but I HATE making mistakes and I LOVE learning something new… so it helps! Thanks Erin!

    1. Thanks Sarah! What I love about your comment is that you are actually preparing to make mistakes… you’re giving yourself a head start on grace. Love it.

  4. Those are some fabulous questions you listed Erin. All spoken from the Learner Mindset and all necessary for leadership – whether organization, teacher, or parent. In the middle of the book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life…is a visual called the Choice Map – Here is as a PDF link to it. It helps you get out of the proverbial “PIT”. Mistakes are part of living, growing and a critical component to success. I love your comment about Grace…providing it for ourselves and others.

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