Mistakes, as James Joyce once said, “are our portals of discovery.” In this article, we’re going to look at how to learn from your mistakes so you can find the lesson hidden inside and apply them to your life.
In Stoicism, the mistakes that you make aren’t what matters. If you are actually engaging in life, you will make mistakes– that’s just a fact. What matters is what we do about them.
In order to learn from your mistakes, what’s the first thing you need to do?
Recognize that you made one.
In many instances, this is easier said than done. Some mistakes are simpler than others to spot and don’t take a huge toll on our ego. Others can be nearly impossible for us to admit to ourselves.
Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge our mistakes because we fear that it means we are a failure or that this screw-up defines us.
”A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”
– Seneca the Younger
Building off of these wise words from Seneca the Younger, we look to a quote from Confucius. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” he said.
We simply have to make mistakes in order to become our best selves. If we allow them to be, they are our greatest teachers.
“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.”
– Bruce Lee
Einstein once said that “a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your mistakes, and don’t live a life with the goal of avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of failure. If you want to become great, you will have to follow the path of countless great people before you– make mistakes, acknowledge them, learn from them, and carry those lessons with you on your long hike up the mountain.
Acknowledging a mistake is a good first step, but that isn’t always enough to keep you from making the same mistake again.
Instead of beating yourself up for messing up, it’s time to take a long, hard look at your error.
As we’ll talk about a little later on, it’s important not to get caught up in the blame game here. Instead, ask yourself the hard questions, like:
It can be useful to write down these answers or even say them out loud. The better able you are to integrate the lesson you’ve learned about the mistake, the more likely you are to avoid repeating the same mistake.
Keeping a list of your mistakes might sound like a bummer of a task, but it can be incredibly useful if you’re interested in actually learning from your mistakes.
Ben Franklin famously looked at his own life with a critical eye and found that he was making many mistakes and fell short of his concept of the ideal man in a number of areas of life.
He then kept a list of virtues that he believed would counteract this negative behavior if he were able to master them. He wrote down thirteen virtues in all, which were:
He would then focus on one virtue each week and keep a chart of his progress in a notebook. While he may have been doing this a few hundred years ago, modern social scientists agree that two key components of successful habit formation are tracking and accountability.
If you really want to learn from your mistakes, keep track of them. Have a page (or a few) in a notebook dedicated to writing down your mistakes. You’ll find the difficulty in acknowledging your mistakes lessens when you realize how beneficial errors really can be for your growth.
The Stoics were big proponents of looking at the world realistically and rationally. As a part of the world, this also means looking at yourself realistically.
Being humble doesn’t mean that you mope around like an Eeyore or never display strength. What it does mean is that you are able to view yourself for what you are– a human that has capabilities and flaws alike.
When you practice humility, it means that you are always willing to consider that you have made a mistake. It doesn’t mean that every time you are criticized, the accuser is right, but it does mean you actually hear what they’re saying and think about whether they are pointing towards something true.
“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”
In order to grow, we have to accept that we aren’t perfect and that we don’t know everything. In order to learn, we have to know that there is plenty we don’t know.
“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”
– Marcus Aurelius
If a Roman Emperor can maintain this level of humility and such a genuine sense of duty, that means we’re all capable of it.
It seems to be in our nature to want to protect ourselves from the pain of having been wrong. This can result in us being endlessly defensive when we’ve made a mistake.
Though it can feel shameful and embarrassing to admit that we were wrong and change our thoughts and actions, it is ultimately for the greater good.
“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”
– Marcus Aurelius
In this quote, Marcus Aurelius shows us how you can shift your priorities toward the truth and away from being defensive. Your focus shouldn’t be on proving that your previous line of thinking was right or your actions were just. Your focus should be on discovering the truth and reorienting your commitment toward the truth rather than the defense of your ego.
Focusing on what is true isn’t always as easy as it seems. As C. S. Lewis said:
“When the whole world is running towards a cliff, he who is running in the opposite direction appears to have lost his mind.”
– C. S. Lewis
Remaining adhered to the truth when everyone is telling you that the sky is purple is one of the hardest things you can do in life. To the Stoics, though, seeking the truth is an essential step in the path to a good and virtuous life.
In his personal journals that were later published as Meditations, Marcus Aurelius gives himself this reminder:
“Learn to ask of all actions, 'Why are they doing that?'
Starting with your own."
– Marcus Aurelius
For some reason, we are inclined to believe that our thoughts and actions are rational while being completely bewildered by what other people say and do.
We don’t have to live in the dark, though. When someone says something we think is wrong or does something we think is a mistake, we can ask ourselves why they are doing that. Before we go around questioning everyone else, though, we need to start with ourselves.
If we really think about it, we don’t really know why we do most of what we do. If we can become aware of our own motivations, intentions, and drives, we are giving ourselves access to a wealth of information that allows us to learn and grow.
It is endlessly tempting to try and wish away the mistakes we make and the hardships that we endure. Our culture makes it easy to escape every examining our lives or doing the hard task of facing our errors head-on. Many of the mistakes we can make don’t have direct feedback, and without self-examination, we can carry on making them over and over again.
“Everything that happens, happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so.”
– Marcus Aurelius
One of the aspects of Stoicism that can completely change your life is their notion of fate and an ordered universe. It isn’t particularly rare these days to meet people or come across ideas online that state the universe is random and, therefore, meaningless. To the Stoics, though, the wise man accepts fate and lives according to nature– fate being a “rational principle for things administered by Providence within the cosmos” as well as “an inescapable ordering and connection.”
Perhaps you already believe that “everything that happens, happens as it should.” If this is a radical shift in perspective, though, it can be incredibly valuable to your goal of learning from mistakes to practice amor fati– embracing and even loving your fate.
When you make a mistake, you don’t have to beat yourself up or tell yourself that you’ll never amount to anything. Instead, you can recognize that this was a part of your fate and an opportunity to learn. Even when making a mistake really stings, you can zoom out and see that it will provide a valuable opportunity to grow toward your best self.
Remember, embracing fate doesn’t mean that you should just lay back and let life happen to you because “whatever’s going to happen is going to happen anyway.” That isn’t the Stoics' view of the relationship between humanity and fate, and it isn’t a very useful worldview, regardless. Instead, you’ll want to look at what you can control and what you can’t control and focus your energy on the things you have power over. As far as the rest goes, Epictetus suggests that you take it “as it happens.”
Learning from mistakes isn’t just about making a clerical error at your job and figuring out how to not make the same error again. It’s about looking at every aspect of your life and extracting the lessons you can find that can be applied today and in the future.
How much energy have you put toward examining your own life? Are there mistakes you’ve made that you aren’t willing to admit to yourself? Are there experiences that need closer assessment that you’ve buried at the bottom of your awareness because it’s difficult to confront them?
“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.”
– Winston Churchill
If you really want to learn from your mistakes, you’ll want to take a look at your whole life thus far. A useful way to do this is to make a timeline of your life, starting with your birth and ending with the present day.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
You can put all of the usual milestones on this timeline– graduating from school, moving to a new town, starting a new job, the beginning (and end) of important relationships, the death of loved ones, and the accomplishments you’ve achieved. In addition, though, consider adding events that pertain to your worldview at different phases, impactful experiences, painful discoveries about yourself or life in general, and other less tangible aspects of your life.
What mistakes have you made in the past? Did you learn from them, or did you persist in them? Are there mistakes that you’re still making today that you can change?
At the same time, look at how your mistakes have led you to where you are now. With a wider perspective, you can gain a new awareness of the benefits of tracking, analyzing, and learning from your mistakes.
It’s one thing to make a mistake that gives you direct feedback– if you cut yourself with a knife, for example, it hurts, and you bleed. The consequences are immediate, and the lesson is clear. You can easily identify why it occurred– maybe the knife was dull, maybe you needed better chopping form, or maybe you weren’t paying enough attention.
With other mistakes, though, everything is a lot more subjective.
Maybe you lost your temper in a way that seems to you completely justified. Was it a mistake, or was it actually a productive and necessary occurrence?
Was it a mistake to break up with your girlfriend, or is it the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself? Are you neglecting your friend, or are you setting up long-overdue healthy boundaries?
Only you can decide the answers to these types of questions for yourself. You can, however, use the Stoic virtues as a guide to help you along the way.
If you really want to figure out what mistakes you’ve made, the lessons you can extract from them, and where to go from here, one of the best things you can do is start a journaling practice.
When dealing with complex or more abstract mistakes, writing everything out can help you keep all of the details straight. It also helps you track not only your mistakes but also the way that you understood them at the time in a way that can be a beneficial resource on your growth path.
There is a technical term for fear of failure– atychiphobia. This mouthful actually comes from the Greek words “atyches” and “phobia,” which combine to mean “a fear of the unfortunate.”
If you can’t gain a healthy perspective regarding mistakes, you’ll spend your life trying to avoid them because you think it implies that you are a failure. You avoid any situations where there is any potential for failure by your definition of the term.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
– Marcus Aurelius
This approach won’t get you very far in life. Being afraid of failure is often self-fulfilling, and the more you avoid making mistakes, the more likely you will be to make them. On top of that, you’ll be less willing to take a long hard look at them and learn the lessons they present.
“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
– George Bernard Shaw
Instead of doing everything in your power to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of making a mistake, practice challenging yourself. Put yourself in situations where you will make mistakes. Through these experiences, you’ll learn that your “failures” actually present opportunities and are, in fact, the path forward.
Occurrences in life often aren’t often neatly wrapped in boxes. If you’re willing to look hard enough, you can always find someone else to blame for your own mistakes. For many people, this is their modus operandi, as it’s a lot less uncomfortable than taking responsibility for the errors we make.
The tendency to blame others can arise in situations of all sizes. Maybe you blame others for the mistakes that you make, or maybe you blame your parents or society for your lot in life. We can always find someone else to point the finger at, but by doing this, we are robbing ourselves of the potential to grow and be the best people we can be.
“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”
This quote from Epictetus really evokes a powerful portrait of what it would mean to be wise. It is a good indication that you are growing as a person, he says, when you start blaming yourself for your own misfortune. But this isn’t actually the pinnacle of wisdom.
“A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.”
– John Burroughs
To be wise, you actually move beyond blaming yourself. You see each mistake and misfortune as a part of the web of fate and an opportunity to become stronger and more virtuous. Contrary to the way that many of us think, it isn’t virtuous to beat yourself up every time you screw up. What is virtuous is to find the lesson hidden inside and use it to inform the way you think and act in the future.
Mistakes are basically gold mines filled with lessons, but that doesn’t mean you need to be the person that makes all of them for yourself. You can also look at other people in your life and watch them closely. If you see something going very poorly for someone else, it’s worth taking a long hard look at what they are up to and whether you can learn what to avoid (or actively do), so you don’t meet the same fate.
This doesn’t mean you should be walking around telling everyone what they’re doing is wrong or chastising them for their mistakes. In fact, Marcus Aurelius has this to say about the errors of others:
“Other people’s mistakes? Leave them to their makers.”
– Marcus Aurelius
You shouldn’t be gleefully thriving on schadenfreude or fixating on where everyone else is messing up to prop yourself up. Instead, learn what you can from the mistakes of others, and otherwise, focus on your own business.
One of our culture's biggest myths is that learning is a process that happens in school and that you magically become a fully formed adult once you reach a certain age.
“As long as you live, keep learning how to live. To err is human, but to persist is diabolical.”
– Seneca the Younger
Nothing could be further from the truth. You can actively continue learning throughout your entire life if you are willing. The reality is, though, that this is the harder path. It’s much easier to assume that you have nothing more to learn and spend your days with the comfortable sense that you’ve figured everything out.
If you want to learn from your mistakes, take a look at your mindset. Do you believe that you are a “fixed” personality, or do you believe that you can continue to grow and learn?
Embracing a growth mindset allows you to take the lessons from a mistake and apply them to your life down the road. It means that your entire world and sense of self don’t have to crumble when you make an error. Instead, you can look at it for what it is, find what’s useful in the experience, and continue on the path toward becoming the best person you can be.
Acknowledging your mistakes, analyzing them, and finding the lessons inside are all great steps. If you really want to learn from your mistakes, though, you’ll want to create a plan for yourself.
Depending on the nature of the mistake, this might be easier said than done.
For example, let’s say that your mistake was something straightforward like missing a credit card payment. Through your examination of the issue, you can easily find steps you can take that will allow you to avoid this mistake in the future. Maybe you’ll set up autopay, reminders on your calendar, or perform a monthly review of bills on a certain date to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
With other mistakes, it can all feel a lot more ephemeral.
Let’s say that you feel you haven’t spent much quality time with your family, and that has been an ongoing mistake. Sure, your action plan might state that you are going to spend more quality time with your family in the evenings and on the weekends. But you probably want to dig deeper into what “quality time” really means and consider whether you want or need to talk to your family about the fact that you’ve been kind of absent. Additionally, you might consider whether there is an exploration to do about why you were prioritizing other things over your family or if there are other related issues to be dealt with.
Another example is if you keep making the mistake of texting your ex even though you know it’s best for you not to interact with them. Maybe in your analysis, you found that you only reach out to them when you’re feeling sad or lonely.
It might not be enough to create an action plan that simply says, “stop texting my ex.” Instead, you might brainstorm a list of other activities you can do when you’re feeling sad and lonely– such as journaling, listening to music, getting some exercise, doing something creative, or going for a walk– and make it a part of your action plan that you will choose one of these activities instead of reaching for your phone.
Now that you’ve made an action plan, it’s time to put it into practice! All this was for naught if you don’t actually apply what you’ve learned practically.
In some instances, this might be easy. If you made the mistake of going for a run right after eating and you got terrible cramps, you can simply change the time that you eat or go for a run.
In others, it’s more difficult. If you realize that you are always procrastinating about things that you need to do, taking your action plan and putting it into practice will take dedication and commitment.
One of the great things about mistakes is that if you’re willing to learn from them, you only have to make them once. You can use the practice of negative visualization (referred to by the Stoics as premedatio malorum.)
This is when you imagine all of the things that could go wrong in relation to a specific event or your life as a whole. Basically, you’re trying to predict the potential for mistakes and obstacles. When you use this practice, it can help you prepare for real-life possibilities and help you appreciate what you do have in life.
When you’re focusing on learning from your mistakes, you can apply previous mistakes and lessons to future occurrences. Imagine how capable you would be if you only had to make every mistake once!
Epictetus reminds us that the person that is making progress “keeps watch and guard on himself as his own enemy, lying in wait for him.” Humans are tricky creatures, and we are highly capable of deluding ourselves and lying to ourselves if we aren’t careful.
For this reason, we have to watch ourselves like a hawk. We not only have to notice when we make mistakes but also notice when we start to sweep mistakes under the rug because our egos won’t like it.
If you really want to learn from your mistakes, keep an eye on yourself. It’ll pay off over time!
Learning from your mistakes can be a very difficult thing to commit to, but it can have tremendous results over time. Everyone who had ever mastered anything made a mistake after mistake before they perfected their craft.
If you are able to take this approach for your whole life and constantly be looking for places where you can make improvements, you'll be astounded by where you end up in a year, five years, or a decade.
By deciding that you are going, to be honest about your mistakes and learn from each and every one of them, you are deciding to walk a path of greatness.
Are you looking for more information on what it means to be Stoic? Are you eager to read more quotes from the great minds of history? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog.