"The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them -- especially not from yourself."
-- Daniel Dennett
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in May implored the class of 2016 at the University of Rhode Island to learn from their mistakes, crediting one of her blunders as being instrumental in getting her to the high court.
Speaking at the commencement ceremony, the nation's first Latina justice talked to the graduates about life's "ah-ha" and "uh-oh" moments, and that while both are fertile ground for personal growth, the "uh-ohs" are our best teachers.
"The ah-ha moment is the first time you gained an insight about yourself or the world around you ... the moment you realize things around you are not as they once seemed," she said. The uh-oh ones are "where you ask yourself, 'What have I done now?'"
The justice recounted how one of her most humiliating "uh-ohs" became a life lesson.
Sotomayor told the crowd that she bombed her first interview for a government job by going in unprepared. She had interviewed with several law firms in the past, she said, and received several job offers. So, she said, she "very conceitedly" went into the government interview blind. When asked what aspects of the agency's work she liked the most, she had a horribly embarrassing "uh-oh" moment. "I had no idea what they did," she said. After that, the now 61-year-old thoroughly prepared for every job interview and was never turned down again, she said.
Embrace Your Mistakes
We're taught in both school and at work that mistakes leave a permanent mark, either in the grade book or on one's career. Robert Sternberg, a psychologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, says that trying to avoid mistakes at all costs blunts creativity. "If you're afraid of making mistakes, you'll never learn on the job, and your whole approach becomes defensive: 'I have to make sure I don't screw up,'" he told Stanford's alumni magazine for an article called "The Effort Effect." The same holds true for students. Those who are shamed for mistakes become afraid to explore, take chances and think outside the box.
Mistakes in the Business World
Did you know that some of today's most popular products were errors? Here are just a few:
Silly Putty -- This kid favorite was stumbled upon by James Wright, an engineer at General Electric. Rubber was in such short supplying during World War II that the U.S. government tasked Wright with creating a rubber substitute. While what he created didn't work as planned, the goo became a top-selling toy and has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Microwave oven -- An engineer with the Raytheon Corporation noticed that microwaves from a magnetron he was working on had melted the candy bar in his pocket. Intrigued, he placed several popcorn kernels near the magnetron, and boom, our kitchens have never been the same.
Inkjet printers -- A Canon researcher discovered this one when he put a hot soldering iron next to a syringe filled with ink. When the syringe shot out ink, the household staple was born. Today's printers have dozens of nozzles, equal to several of those syringes.
There's also penicillin, the pacemaker, Post-It notes, potato chips and many more that prove it's good to make mistakes.
Mistakes in the Classroom
Jo Boaler, a professor of math at Stanford, says researchers have found that when people make mistakes, their brains benefit.
"Your brain grows when you make a mistake, even if you're not aware of it, because it's a time when your brain is struggling," Boaler said. "It's the most important time for our brains."
This finding, Boaler said, "suggests that we want students to make mistakes in math class and that students should not view mistakes as learning failures but as learning achievements ... being outside their comfort zone is an extremely important place to be."
Studies have repeatedly shown that how well people bounce back from their mistakes is tied to their core beliefs about whether intelligence is fixed or can change with learning and effort. For people with a growth mindset, mistakes are viewed as opportunities to improve. For those with a fixed mindset, mistakes signal a lack of ability. Guess who fares better? Case in point: A research review by David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin and Carol Dweck of Stanford University finds that students who believe that their intellectual abilities can be developed and grow (as opposed to being fixed) tend to show higher achievement. Yeager will do a deep dive into the importance of mindset at this year's MAPP (master of applied positive psychology) Summit at the University of Pennsylvania.
We also know that resilience -- the ability to recover from our mistakes -- can be taught, thanks in large part to the work of Martin Seligman, a psychology professor who runs Penn's Positive Psychology Center. The U.S. Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, based on Seligman's research, is a preventive program that teaches both drill sergeants and soldiers skills to build mental toughness and grow from failure. "Frankly, we were nervous that these hard-boiled soldiers would find resilience training 'girly' or 'touchy-feely' or 'psychobabble,'" Seligman wrote in the Harvard Business Review. "They did not; in fact, they gave the course an average rating of 4.9 out of 5.0. A large number of them say it's the best course they've ever had in the Army."
In his latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, cognitive scientist and American philosopher Daniel Dennett discusses seven tools for critical thinking and reasoning. The first -- and perhaps the most important --is that we should use our mistakes to our advantage.
"We have all heard the forlorn refrain 'Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!'" Dennett writes. "This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, 'Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!' is standing on the threshold of brilliance."
So which mistake are you going to learn from today? In truth, your only mistake is simply not trying. Success or failure, it's a win-win.
Jason Powers, MD, who holds a master's of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, is the chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab program and The Right Step network of addiction treatment centers in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives.