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Learning How the Brain Can Work with Mistakes and Failures

Learning How the Brain Can Work with Mistakes and Failures

Learning and Growing from Mistakes and Failures

When learning how the brain learns, so we can learn how to become more resilient (see RRR post Learning to Work with the Brain to Become More Resilient) it’s not that we need to go looking for trouble to practice becoming resilient.

Life happens.  We cycle through opportunities to practice becoming more resilient on a daily basis, known affectionately in some circles as AFGO’s – “another frickin’ growth opportunity.”

We misplace our house keys and wallet two minutes before we have to rush out the door to catch the 6:15am bus for work.  We spill the entire lasagna onto the kitchen floor on the way to 6 guests in the dining room.  We shred the wrong client file at work.  We leave a laptop on the plane.

We practice re-righting ourselves as best as we can, coming back to center, finding the gift in the mistake, turning, as neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says, a “regrettable moment into a teachable moment,” all the time.

Our brain rewires from the experience of making a mistake and it rewires from the experience of learning from the mistake.  “What did I not see?”  What could I have done differently?  Who could I have asked for help?  What can I do differently now?  Who could I ask for advice now?

And in that process of learning and rewiring, it’s also important to rewire any critical messages we layer on top of ourselves for making the mistake in the first place.

“I knew I shouldn’t have tried.  I knew I would mess this up!  I can’t every get anything right!”

That rewiring (re-conditioning) can happen when we juxtapose a positive message about ourselves with any negative, critical message. When learning to learn from mistakes, being able to say to ourselves, quickly and heartily, “My deep and clear intention is to strengthen my resilience, and to know deep within my being that I am learning, I am becoming more resilient.”

Here’s a simply but powerful exercise to practice this rewiring as we are learning from our mistakes.

EXERCISE   “EVEN THOUGH…I AM LEARNING

1.  Practice saying this positive thought over and over again (to create the positive experience first) until it feels natural and believable to you: “Even though….(you’ll fill in the blank in a moment) “My deep and clear intention is to strengthen my resilience, and to know deep within my being that I am learning, I am becoming more resilient.”

That may not feel natural to say at first, but it can feel more familiar and comfortable with practice. If that phrase is too much of a stretch at first, you can begin with “I’m willing to consider thinking about trying to….”

2.  When the positive phrase does begin to feel realistic, you can begin the juxtaposition with any AFGO: “Even though I forgot to email Jane and Don about changing dinner plans for Saturday, my deep and clear intention is to strengthen my resilience, and to know deep within my being that I am learning, I am becoming more resilient.”  And then do whatever learning you can do that would help you be more resilient or skillful next time.

Even though my boss wasn’t too crazy about my idea of putting up a stop sign in the parking lot, my deep and clear intention is to strengthen my resilience, and to know deep within my being that I am learning, I am becoming more resilient.”  And then do whatever learning you can do that would help you be more resilient or skillful or involve other people next time.

You get the gist. With many different AFGO’s. Over and over and over.  Until the new message becomes a new habit in your brain, ready to intervene between any mistake or failure you’ve experienced and going down a rabbit-hole of regret or catastrophizing about it. This intervention keeps your brain open and plastic to do the learning.

Whatever the particular learning from any particular AFGO is, the deeper learning is “I am learning, I am becoming more resilient.”  That learning is a powerful boost to your resilience right there, in every moment.

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