Make Mistakes to Learn

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We spend a lot of time listening to lectures, reading, and memorizing. As anyone who has tried to learn a language knows, this is a very frustrating and tedious process. But since there are no other commonly accepted methods, few of us have any experience of other kinds of learning.

According to the article, the best way to learn anything is to try to apply it in its intended context. If you're trying to learn a language, the best way is to go somewhere the language is spoken and try to get by. You will make a ton of mistakes, but the mistakes allow your brain to refine what it knows and throw out useless information or inadequate concepts.

So the reality is that we rely on making mistakes. Think of mistakes as an opportunity to prune your knowledge. They teach you what doesn't work. Thought of in this way, mistakes are actually good things. Try to make lots of them rather than always sticking to what's safe.

Why We Hate Messing Up

The problem with most learning systems we have is that they punish mistakes. In school, we are not generally encouraged to experiment but rather to learn something correctly and apply it that way. This becomes simple rote. If instead we were allowed to play around and make our own mistakes, we would certainly retain the information much better.

Granted, it is nearly impossible to give the high volume of feedback that would be necessary for this to work. In order to learn though mistakes, you would need to have near-constant feedback so you have the opportunity to tweak and adjust your mental models. In the context of language learning, this works well because you can go visit a country. Every conversation you have is an opportunity to test your mistakes. Academics tend to be more problematic because mistakes are given bad grades, and teachers cannot afford the time to let students constantly try things on their own until they get it right.

I'm not saying that students should re-derive all of Newton's laws of physics, but that once they have learned them, they should have the opportunity to apply those laws in real-world situations, with rewards and consequences that reinforce any mistakes or successes. It's one thing to see a diagram of a baseball being thrown in the air and know to apply the gravitational and acceleration equations because that's the chapter you're in. It is another thing entirely to go out, throw a baseball, and time it, then calculate its height.

Be Okay with Messing Up

Generally, we are very afraid to make mistakes. We think that we ought to know something completely before attempting it. There is often a fear among people to try new things until they know what they are doing. These people don't seem to realize that they will never know what they are doing until they are okay with making stupid and embarrassing mistakes.

As a trainer, I go out of my way to regale my trainees with stories of my own mistakes and difficulties. Many of them get very frustrated with skills that seem simple when a more advanced athlete performs them. I remind them that they have to make the mistakes to get to mastery, and that I also spent many, many months making lots of mistakes.

Mastery doesn't come until you've made enough mistakes. In fact, I would say that the definition of an expert is one who mas made more mistakes than others in the field. And unless you can accept that you will fail a lot, you won't be able to go through the learning process, since true learning is the result of making mistakes.

Here is the link to the original article if you'd like to check it out:

Are there any tasks or goals you are waiting to attempt until you 'know what you're doing'? Try simply taking the plunge, accepting the reality of uncertainty and the necessity of occasional failure. You'll be surprised at how quickly success comes once you accept making a few mistakes.

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