The Importance of Mindset.
Do you try to turn mistakes into learning opportunities (albeit painful ones)? Or do you see them as a part of life which we just have to overcome and forget about?
If you don’t believe that you can learn from your mistakes, then you subscribe to the “entity theory” that your intelligence is finite and there is little you can do to develop it. If you think that by analyzing your performance you can get a bit better every day, then you subscribe to the “incremental theory” of intelligence. (Both theories as labeled by Carol Dweck.)
Your mindset will influence how you perform: if you think you can learn from your mistakes, you will. If you don’t believe so, you won’t. This last self-fulfilling prophecy is dangerous on many levels.
If you believe that you are at the top of your game, you will avoid risks that challenge that perception. If you are not quite happy with your current performance but think there is no point in trying to improve it, you will just stay away from anything where you can possibly fail.
What happens when we make mistakes?
When we first realise we have made a mistake, the brain reacts with two signals in the anterior cingulated cortex, the area responsible for helping to monitor behavior, anticipate rewards and regulate attention. The first signal occurs 50 milliseconds after the error occurs and is referred to as Error-related negativity (ERN). The second signal is called Error positivity (Pe) and it takes place 100-500ms after the mistake, when we pay attention to the error.
Research has shown that the larger the ERN signal and the more consistent the Pe signal appears, the stronger the learning experience from mistakes.
Mind and Brain
Let’s go back to the entity and incremental theories of intelligence and how these mindsets affect how much we can learn from mistakes.
A recent study (2011) by psychologist Jason Morser aimed to find out whether brain activity during “mistake-making” differed between those people who thought they could learn from the experience and those who thought they couldn’t.
University students had to identify the middle letter of a series of five letters, such as MMMMM or MMNMM. To record their brain activity, the students wore an EEG (electroencephalography) cap, which records neural activity in the brain, though not the location of this activity.
Those students with growth mindset got better at the exercise as time went on, learning from their mistakes. The main difference in neural activity was the larger Pe signal, meaning that they were paying greater attention to the fact that they had made a mistake. This signal was three times as large and was correlated with improvements after a mistake was made.
Our brains are programmed not just to identify errors, but also to dwell on them. Stronger brain activity related to awareness of errors results in a greater ability to learn from mistakes.
What this science doesn’t tell us (yet) is whether our brain physiology is dictating our mindset or whether our mindset is having an effect on our brain activity. This reflects the ongoing brain/mind and nature/nurture debates. Bearing in mind that the brain is plastic and changes as we age, I think it is safe to say: a bit of both.
There is no doubt that undergoing change (at work, in our personal lives) is going to involve some degree of learning by trial and error. Making mistakes is rarely pleasant (I say rarely, because there are some activities where getting it wrong can be quite amusing) and the temptation might be to move on and forget about them. That’s fine, as long as before you start discarding them, you consider whether they have anything to offer, removing a bit of that bitter taste from your mouth.