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Learning from failures

“There is no winning and losing, only winning and learning”

“Own your mistakes”

Siri Lindley two times Triathlon World Cup winner1

An old adage goes ‘learn from your mistakes’. In general, this is good advice. Mistakes are an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong and what you could improve upon next time you are faced with a similar situation. The problem is, it is not always that easy to see failures as mistakes.

By failures I mean ‘lack of success’, which could be due to your own fault, other people, or random change. By mistakes I specifically mean ‘lack of success attributed to your own actions’. If you do not view failures as being a result of your own actions, you cannot ask how you can improve upon similar situations in the future.

But it can hard to accept that a failure is our own mistake. Most of us are socially preconditioned to avoid blame. It can also be hard emotionally to blame yourself. Accepting a failure as your own entails accepting greater responsibility for your actions.

Of course, you need to be honest with yourself. Most failures are a mix of your own decisions, other people’s and random chance.

As an example, consider those particularly nasty reviews you have likely got (or will get eventually if you are just starting out in academia) on a paper you submitted.

A quote from a review I got as a young researcher on a now published paper

When confronted with highly negative criticism, it is easy to lay the blame on the reviewer. “They have a narrow view of the world”, “they are old and grumpy”, “they were annoyed because we didn’t cite more of their own work”, “they missed the point” are all phrases I have heard (or spoken!) in response to difficult reviews.

While there may be elements of truth in those comments, your objective is obviously to get the paper published. The reviewer may be grumpy, because they were tired and overworked. The solution - write for tired and overworked people! Just blaming others doesn’t help you improve it for the next round of review. It may be better to take some of the blame on yourself and ask how you could avoid such comments in future. For instance, try turning

Owning your mistakes

So how can you own your mistakes so they have maximal (positive) psychological impact so you learn the lesson? Here are a few ways I have thought about.

  1. Tell other people about your mistakes. For instance, acknowledge to your coauthors that a particular review criticism related to part of the paper you had written. The flip side is you should acknowledge your own and other people’s successes too.

  2. Write about mistakes in your annual review. At my uni we have annual reviews of our performance and PhD students have regular reviews on the progress of their thesis. It is tempting to just put all your successes in these reports. I think it is important to acknowledge mistakes in these forums. It will help you consolidate the lesson and perhaps provide your supervisors an opportunity to give you helpful advice. As an example, I received criticism on a grant application that I had too many co-authored (not first authored) publications. While such comments can hurt, because of the time we have invested in our careers, looking at this criticism I realised I had been investing too much time on helping with other people’s projects. Acknowledging this bias helped me set goals in my annual report for focussing on leading publications, and rapidly turn the situation around.

  3. See avoided losses as success. For instance, say you start a project that you expect will require 2 months of lab work. Two months in you have made little progress, and you realise the project is much harder than you initially thought. If you decide to terminate the project now you could save a lot more wasted time that would be better spent on other things. While you could view this as 2 months wasted, you could also view it in light of the future time you save by stopping the project early. Thus, I think it is helpful to report on such mistakes as successes, because you avoided more wasted time.

  4. Try to think objectively when other people offer you excuses. For instance, your supervisor might write-off a bad review as coming from their grumpy academic nemesis. That might be the case, but doesn’t mean you can’t still learn how to improve your paper from the feedback you received (as above).

  5. Do a pre-mortem on new projects. I learned this one from Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow. You do a pre-mortem once you have written the initial conception and plan for a project. Get yourself and other team members to sit down and imagine all the ways the project could fail. Have them write down a list of ways the project could fail independently before you discuss your lists. Then see if there are ways to design the project to avoid failures or mitigate losses. Pre-mortems help us learn from mistakes before they even happen and are particularly important when we can’t afford to make mistakes.

So be hard on yourself if you want to learn from your mistakes, but not too hard.

1: Once again I have drawn inspiration from endurance athletics. I got the idea for this blog post from listening to a podcast where Tony Robbins interviews Siri Lindley about what made her successful as a Triathlete. I highly recommend you check it out.



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