Simple Strategy Helps You Learn from Mistakes

Screw-ups happen. Fortunately, a simple strategy called self-affirmation may help you own up to blunders instead of becoming defensive about them. And researchers say that may help you learn from your mistakes.

“I Messed Up, but I’ve Got a Great Personality”

Self-affirmation boils down to reminding yourself what a great person you are and how successful you’ve been in other situations. For example, if you lose a sale at work, you might remind yourself that you’re well-liked by customers, a peacekeeper in the office, and a thoughtful spouse at home. Recent studies suggest that self-affirmation can help you accept hard truths about yourself without losing faith in your overall goodness and competence.

Of course, many people go the opposite way, getting defensive about flubs and flaws. They deny their mistakes, dismiss the harm they’ve done, or disparage their critics (even the constructive ones). For a while, this defensiveness may protect people’s sense of self-worth. But in the long run, it gets in the way of growing from experience. Before improving your sales pitch, for example, you need to acknowledge that it’s weak.

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Learning from Your Missteps

A new study in Psychological Science bears out this benefit of self-affirmation. Volunteers were first asked to rank six values in order of importance to them. Then half spent five minutes writing about why their top value matters—a task designed to boost self-affirmation. The other half spent the time writing about why that value doesn’t actually matter—a task designed to undermine their sense of self-worth.

Afterward, all the volunteers moved on to another activity—one that gave them ample opportunity to screw up. Volunteers were asked to press a button when the letter M appear on a screen, but refrain from pressing it when the letter W popped up. To make it more nerve-wracking, whenever they made an error, the message “Wrong!” flashed on the screen.

All the while, the volunteers were hooked up to an EEG monitor, which measured their brain activity. These measurements showed that the self-affirmed group reacted more strongly to their mistakes—a sign that they were quicker to notice errors. But they also made fewer mistakes overall—a sign that they not only noticed errors, but also learned from them.

How to Do Self-Affirmation

In everyday life, writing for several minutes isn’t always practical. So in another study, researchers led by Christopher Armitage, PhD, at the University of Sheffield in England tested a quicker, easier method of using self-affirmation.

Study participants made a promise to themselves that started: “If I feel threatened or anxious, then I will…” They finished the sentence with the option of their choice:

  • “…think about the things I value about myself.”
  • “…remember things that I have succeeded in.”
  • “…think about what I stand for.”
  • “…think about things that are important to me.”

Making this pledge to themselves and following through on it seemed to work for those in the study—and it may work for you as well. Reminding yourself what makes you so wonderful is soothing salve for a bruised ego.

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