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Learned Idiocy

Mistakes: People keep telling me they learn from their mistakes. And I’m pretty sure they are mistaken. Yes, you learn from a mistake not to do again whatever the mistake happened to be. And you may learn something about your own resilience if you later succeed. But, unless there’s a process of elimination among a small, finite set, the mistake is no guide about what to do in order to succeed.

Let’s say that you set out from home and forget to bring your theatre tickets with you. That’s a mistake, because now you don’t know if you can get in to see the show. You either have to make an arrangement with the theatre to get in without a ticket or make an awkward and unnecessary journey to retrieve the tickets.

What might you have learned? Remember to take your theatre tickets. And that gives you no greater knowledge than people who always remember to bring their tickets. You may learn that your theatre operates with an impersonal system and so won’t let you in because to do so would fall foul of their data protection responsibilities. (Yes, this is all based on a true story).

Or you learn something about yourself – that you are an idiot or some such. That’s probably not a useful ‘learning’, as you’d have forgotten to weigh this one mistake against the dozens of things you did successfully remember that day. So you are on track to constructing an unhelpful image of yourself (or of someone else, if we play the blame game). New learning, perhaps, but entirely unhelpful and negative. A hidden danger of embracing mistakes is that we start paying them so much attention that we construct an unhelpful new ‘truth’ or ‘learning’.


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