Merlin Mann has me thinking about patterns for creativity. Then, the other night at Jonah Lehrer‘s talk, someone from the audience asked him if he had applied any of his learning about decision-making towards influencing his own life. The joke was whether he had begun to give his hypothetical 3-year old child random rewards, since we know those are most likely to trigger our dopamine reward buttons the most effectively. Hypothetical child aside, he said that the main new practice he had begun in his life, which is only tangentially related to decision-making and creativity, is to study his own mistakes.
He mentioned how some of the most skilled and productive people he knew were diligent studiers of their own mistakes… from football players to public speakers to people in any area of performance or skill-based work.
Fast-forwards the learning process
If random rewards are known for their ability to give us little jolts of enjoyment, like candy for the brain, random punishments are even more powerful. Most of us have very strong loss aversion (wikipedia) and feel more pain at losing $10 than winning $10. This helps keep most of us out of the casinos and out of other risky situations.
Studying mistakes is like self-surgery — a delicate procedure
However, most of us don’t use this to its full advantage, knowing also that making mistakes is a frustrating and sometimes humiliating feeling. The key is to find that balance between acknowledging your mistake and taking it as a personal hit against your own self-worth. The touchiness of this exercise probably explains why this pattern isn’t used very much. Assuming you can find your own way into this tangle, the value will more than pay back for the effort.
Balances the ego
The ego has no problem seeking out ways to make itself stronger. And yet, a balanced ego that has love for itself as well as love for others is the healthier route to take. Finding healthy ego-weakening exercises isn’t an easy task though… studying your own mistakes, without broadcasting or glorifying them, could do the trick. On the other hand, if your ego is down in the dumps and can barely look itself in the eye without feeling contempt for itself, this pattern is probably not the first pattern you should adopt.
How to practice this pattern
1 – The first task is to become more attentive and accepting of mistakes. Our tendency is to spend so much time hiding our mistakes that we can often trick even ourselves into thinking that a mistake isn’t a mistake. This is perhaps the most difficult step in the pattern… becoming mindful of your mistakes without leveling harsh judgment on yourself is a pretty powerful skill.
2 – Assuming you can discover, acknowledge and accept a particular mistake, the next step is to figure out why the mistake happened. Was it an error in intention (did you have the wrong intention?) or an error in execution (did you choose the wrong way to bring the intention to fruition?) or an error in results (did something unexpected turn good intentions and good actions into the wrong result?).
3 – Depending on where the mistake has occured in the anatomy of the full event, you can then determine if there’s anything to learn from it. Often, there may be nothing to learn from it, especially if it was an error of innocence where a previously unknown element surfaced and produced unpredictable results.
Caveat: Don’t try to learn too much about your mistake simply for the sake of creating new rules.
Note that this pattern isn’t about learning from your mistakes, but simply studying them. Becoming aware of them, accepting them, shifting them in your hands like a hot coal until it cools down, and setting it on the ground.