Productive Failure: Turn Your Mistakes Into Learning Opportunities

We learn by doing. Think about the basic skills you've acquired in life. You learned to walk by pulling yourself up, turning loose, and taking a step. You fell the first time, but you got up and tried again. Each time you did it a little better than the time before. You were learning by doing.

You learned to drive a car by taking one out on the highway with an experienced teacher who could give you instructions and point out your mistakes as you drove.

With each endeavor, you started as a novice, and you learned proficiency from the mistakes you made. It's that way in any undertaking. When you take action toward your goals, you will make mistakes. Don't worry about it. Everybody makes them. Successful people learn from theirs. They know the difference between a productive failure and a non-productive success.

In a productive failure, you don't achieve your objective, but you come away with new knowledge and understanding that will increase your chances of success on the next try. A non-productive success occurs when you achieve your objective, but you're not sure what it was you did right. You can build on productive failures. You can't build on a non-productive success.

The more actions you take, the more productive failures you'll experience. The more productive failures you experience, the more you'll learn. Thomas Edison experienced 1,100 productive failures before he found the right filament for his incandescent lamp.

To turn your mistakes into learning opportunities, follow these suggestions:

  • Have measurable goals. You won't know whether you're moving toward your goals unless you have some way of measuring the motion. That's why your goals should be specific.
  • Acquire a learning mentality. You must become better tomorrow than you are today just to stay even. Develop an attitude towards life-long learning.
  • Seek positive and negative feedback. Encourage those you trust to give you both legitimate criticism and earned recognition.

The greatest enemy of your creative powers is smug complacency - being satisfied with less than what you are capable of doing. Make a strong and permanent commitment to invest your life and talents only in those pursuits that deserve your best efforts. Then, act on your ideas, because we learn by doing.


Dr. Nido Qubein is an international speaker and accomplished author on sales, communication, and leadership. He is president of High Point University and chairman of Great Harvest Bread Company with 220 stores in 43 states.

Published: July 24th, 2013

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