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How to fail better: We learn from our mistakes, not successes

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Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I recently had to admit that I was wrong. There were no ifs, buts or maybes on this one. No 'he said she said' or agreeing to disagree.

I was wrong, plain and simple, only I couldn't admit it plainly or simply.

We all know the five stages of grief and loss. There seems to be a similar cycle to admitting wrongdoing. I wiggled and wrangled around the subject, looking for any way out.

At first I denied it. Then I minimised it. Rationalisation came next: "Sure I was only having a laugh!" After which came justification: "Everyone knew it was a joke."

Eventually I had to concede that I was wrong, plain and simple, with the words "What I said proves a major shortcoming in my character that I hope to correct".

I felt like I was removing my armour in the face of attack and it was as humbling and liberating as it was humiliating and terrifying.

Afterwards I wondered why my defense was so entrenched when deep down I knew I was wrong. I knew my attempts to make light of the situation were childish but admitting I was wrong felt like pushing through a block.

So I was glad to discover that neuroscience has some of the answers. At least I could blame my inability to say 'sorry' on my brain.

There are hardwired cognitive mechanisms at work that make us truculently resist admitting when we are wrong. One such mechanism is 'cognitive dissonance', which is the psychological discomfort we experience when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs. Our brains seek consistency hence when we encounter inconsistency a defense mechanism kicks in, even in the face of cold hard facts.

Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered an alarming example of this phenomenon when they presented misinformed people, in particular those with strong political allegiances, with corrected facts in news stories.

The participants didn't change their minds, however. On the contrary, the cold hard truth made them cling even tighter to their misbeliefs.

Cognitive dissonance and other cognitive biases are explored in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). Social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson use diverse case studies spanning from George Bush and the Iraq War to Mel Gibson's racist rants to explain why we go to such elaborate lengths to avoid admitting we are wrong.

"Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity," they write, "and as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd".

We doggedly avoid admitting when we were wrong for other reasons too. It's ingrained in the collective psyche as a sign of weakness. Admitting we are wrong makes us feel vulnerable and exposed - it's showing our hand in the ego-driven game of one-upmanship.

We've all dealt with service providers that blame "systems" and unidentified middle men, just as we know managers that scapegoat their subordinates rather than take the flak. Acknowledging that we are wrong is hard, admitting that that we are wrong is harder still.

Well, for some people. Highly successful people seem to find it easier, probably because they consider mistakes inevitable potholes on the road to success.

"The proactive approach to a mistake is to acknowledge it instantly, correct and learn from it," wrote Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Or as John C Maxwell wrote: "A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them".

Progress depends on this approach. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking's mistakes have been the bedrock of some of his most brilliant theories. Astronomer Johannes Kepler rejected many of his own theories on the way to discovering the laws of planetary motion.

Investor Warren Buffet, one of the world's wealthiest people, also knows how to admit when he's wrong. In a 2008 letter to fellow shareholder s of Berkshire Hathaway, of which he is CEO and chairman, he admitted making the wrong call by investing in Irish banks.

"I made some other already-recognizable errors as well. They were smaller, but unfortunately not that small. During 2008, I spent $244 million for shares of two Irish banks that appeared cheap to me. At yearend we wrote these holdings down to market: $27 million, for an 89pc loss. Since then, the two stocks have declined even further."

We don't learn from our successes. We learn from our mistakes. But if we can't admit we made a mistake - not least to ourselves - how can we progress? 'Wrongologist' Kathryn Schulz wrote a book on this very subject. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, she reminds that "Our love of being right is best understood as our fear of being wrong" .

Admitting to being wrong is something of a zeitgeist subject. Expert authors have started to examine their failures rather than their successes to inspire a new wave of "how-not-to" guides. Elsewhere, entrepreneurs have started to swap tales of failure. FailCon is an international conference for start-up founders to study each other's failures and prepare for success.

We are slowly realising that admitting when we are wrong is not just gracious, it is advantageous. When we acknowledge our mistakes we short circuit the cognitive and behaviourial mechanisms at play and only then can we learn from the experience.

At the very least we learn that admitting to being wrong is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength… and success.

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