Sometimes You Win—Sometimes You Learn

"Mistakes can often be our best teachers."

- Sometimes You Win, page 28

Mistakes. Everyone makes them. They range from annoyances such as taking the incorrect exit off the freeway to mixing up whether your appointment is a.m. or p.m. Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, but the difference between success and failure is in learning from those mistakes. Author John Maxwell, author of Sometimes You WinSometimes You Learn, believes that everyone can gain insight and value from understanding mistakes for what they are: opportunities for improvement. If everyone makes mistakes and they can help you grow, why are they so taboo? Because they are more than a little misunderstood.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Understand the role mistakes play

"Most of us are taught, beginning in kindergarten, that mistakes are bad. How often did you hear, ‘Don’t make a mistake!’ In reality, the way we learn is by making mistakes. A mistake simply shows you something you didn’t know. Once you make the mistake, then you know it."
- Sometimes You Win, page 136

What is a mistake? The dictionary says that a mistake is something that is wrong or incorrect, but John Maxwell believes mistakes go beyond that. He believes that mistakes are the means of learning. Think about how you learned to ride a bike? By falling over, or making mistakes, you eventually learned to balance and stopped tipping over. As children this process of mistakes and learning is understood and accepted. Unfortunately, many people erroneously believe that they will simply outgrow the need to make mistakes. They believe that with age comes experience. Maxwell explains that even at the age of 67 he is still making mistakes on his 71st book. He points out that while he has not stopped making mistakes, he has cultivated the ability to learn from them and move on quicker.

Not only is it important to accept the inevitability of mistakes, at all ages, it is important to make the right kinds of mistakes. Maxwell explains you make mistakes for one of two reasons: You can make mistakes because of ignorance, meaning you “did not have the necessary information”, or you can make mistakes because of stupidity, meaning you “had the necessary information but misused it.” Once you understand the role mistakes play it is much easier to accept them and learn from them.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Evaluate Your Experience

"The Stone Age didn’t end because people ran out of stones. It ended because people kept learning and improving."
- Sometimes You Win, page 77

Learning from your mistakes is not a given, the simple fact that you are making mistakes does not entitle you to experience. It is once you start to learn from your mistakes that growth occurs. Therefore, Maxwell believes that “experience isn’t the best teacher; evaluated experience is.” Asking questions about why something went wrong or what is to be learned from an event—along with developing a plan to apply what you’ve learned from the event—can create a difference between success and failure in the future. If you have ever thought “I would do X differently in the future”, you are already on your way.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Make New Mistakes

"There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes, but some people respond with encores."
- Sometimes You Win, page 116

Once you have overcome your initial paralysis of making mistakes and are learning from them, the next step is to strive to make new mistakes. Maxwell notes that “Growth is a process of trial and error, experimentation and improvement. The failed experiments are as much of that process as the ones that work.” Mistakes are not the enemy, the issue arises from not learning and continuing to make those same mistakes. This is the problem most people encounter.

In order to grow you have to change and new things will invariably bring along a number of new mistakes. Embrace them for what they are: opportunities to grow.

Recently, in an attempt to learn from my mistakes and experiences, I’ve started to conduct “post-mortems” where I write down my thoughts to a few brief questions to help evaluate the experience. I ask questions like: What went well? What would I do differently? The minor investment of 15 minutes of answering a few questions has paid big dividends in terms of facilitating better family get togethers and more effective school projects. The simple act of processing what happened and how to improve in the future is invaluable.

Not all mistakes require written analysis as often as learning occurs through very straight forward means. For example: I didn’t know what a clove of garlic was and mistakenly purchased ten times as much garlic as the recipe required. After a good laugh my sweet wife explained the difference between a clove and a bulb of garlic. It is unlikely that I would have learned such a fact without my “mistake.”

In the comments below, let us know what mistakes you have learned from.

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Jakob Browning

ABOUT Jakob Browning

I am Jakob Browning. This fall I'll start my final year of law school. I enjoy running long distances. I have three younger brothers who will all probably be taller than me soon...
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