The Wrong Lessons from Mistakes

by Krishna on April 28, 2008

Whether we like it or not, we all make mistakes. Failures, big and small, are a part of our life. Although we don’t welcome them and although some failures can be harsh, they can be very educational. Learning from mistakes is part of building experience and knowing what works and what doesn’t. There is a saying, “Fail early”. If you make mistakes when they are less critical, you can avoid making them later on when it would be more expensive to clean up.

But for all that, sometimes we learn the wrong lessons from mistakes. The first problem with mistakes is that in many cases, it is not easy to pinpoint the exact cause of the failure. Was it a wrong idea? Or was it a good idea wrongly executed? Did the failures lie in the process used? Were some of the people involved wrong for the job? In many cases, answers are hard to come by. Most people fall back on the simplest or most non-controversial reason, hiding the true nature of the failure.

For example, a project failure may be blamed on a technical challenge that was difficult to solve, but the real reasons may have been elsewhere: misunderstood requirements, wrong architecture or design, insufficient exploration of alternatives, unskilled personnel and so on. Not understanding and fixing the root causes keeps them alive to disrupt future endeavors.

Another mistake is to assume that the conditions under which the failure happened to be constant and never-changing. Many failures occur because of wrong timing. For example, a product may be unsuccessful because its demands on infrastructure (hardware or software) may mean that it is too slow or too expensive. But in time, as technology becomes faster and cheaper, the same unsuccessful technology could become a bestseller. Consider the timing of YouTube. A few years earlier, it would probably have gone nowhere.

It is not just technology, either. People (users and other decision makers) change too. People who previously exhibited skepticism about something (and caused its downfall) may be more amenable to it today. Even people who were adamantly opposed sometimes change their views because they have learnt something new or positive about it in the meantime. The other possibility is that the most vocal opposition has left the decision-making table for other ventures. In any case, people or technology, what this means is that a mistake yesterday may not be a mistake today, even if you do the exact same thing.

The third and most important mistake is to lose heart and become disillusioned because your efforts are not paying off. Most people have great ideas. But great ideas need the right environment and care to flourish and succeed. So when those ideas fail to prosper, those people sometimes stop dreaming and having new ideas.

The key to overcoming such disappointment is to understand the greater goal behind those ideas and become less attached to the ideas themselves. If one path to the vision is blocked, you have to find a detour. This could provide the inspiration for new ideas as well as maintaining your enthusiasm. Never let mistakes destroy your spirit.

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