Learning from Mistakes

If we as instructors focus on progress instead of perfection, it makes it easier for our learners to do the same thing.

The best classroom lessons don’t come out of a quest for perfection. At an early age, it seems, we become creatures driven by the quest for perfection. What parent has not watched a child struggle with a newly learned task—riding a bike or writing letters of the alphabet—and heard the exasperated words, “I can’t get it right!”? As adults, who among us hasn’t smacked himself on the forehead when a task went awry and thought, “Geez, what a dope I am! Am I ever going to get this right?”

That quest for perfection is a path I think many people follow. I, for one, have been guilty of making the pursuit of perfection one of my life’s goals and judging myself based on whether I was “right” or “wrong” in a given situation.


In one course, I was running an activity where 60 participants read a case study and chose which of the seven solutions they thought would best solve the problem. Then they were grouped by the solution they chose. The group put together a series of points that helped explain their position. One at a time, each group presented their view to the other groups. Anyone within any group could change their minds, leave their group, and join a group whose thinking they liked better.

The class thought this was an exercise in debate and persuasion—trying to get other people to change their minds and collect the largest group. And it was—on the surface. But the real purpose was to see how well people used the skills they had learned earlier in the course—listening to others and understanding their perspectives. In most classes, most participants show no interest in listening—except to find holes in other people’s arguments, so their viewpoint can “win”!

During the presentations, everyone was presenting to me, rather than making eye contact with the other groups. So I said, “Please don’t give your presentation to me—because I can’t join your group.” If I had stopped there, it would have been perfect! But this thought flashed into my mind, and before I could stop myself (for those of you old enough to remember, think of Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live sitting on my shoulder and crying, “Oh, nooooo!”), I said, “Besides, I already know the right answer.”

As soon as I said that, I knew I shouldn’t have—and I could tell by looking at the class that many of them knew I shouldn’t have said it either. I didn’t say anything at first, but what I had done weighed on me. So about half an hour later, I said, “I need to say something.” And I could tell many of them knew what I was going to talk about.

I continued, “Earlier, we did an exercise about debate and persuasion. Many of you were giving your presentations to me instead of to each other. I said, ‘Please don’t give your presentation to me—because I can’t join your group.’ That statement was fine. But then I said, ‘Besides, I already know the right answer.’ That was wrong. By now, you already know there was no right answer. And when I said that, I overstepped my role. My role is to be your facilitator and guide. So I’d like to ask, ‘Would you forgive me?’”

I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to humble myself before the group and admit the “great” Bob Pike had made a mistake. But it was the right thing to do. It changed the mood of the room. And it allowed real learning to take place. In an attempt to avoid being wrong, then, I have caught myself trying to control any potential learning environment and limiting the risks I take in it.


I wanted to be perfect for my group, but I wasn’t. Seldom will any of us be perfect anywhere. The best we can work on is progress, not perfection. Work with things as they come, not as we want them to be. Work with what you do, not what you “should have done.” It will eliminate a lot of frustration, anxiety, and forehead smacking. If we as instructors focus on progress instead of perfection, it makes it easier for our learners to do the same thing. Often, we learn faster when we are OK with making a mistake and learning from it, rather than not doing anything until we can do it perfectly.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop trying to do our best each time we attempt a new skill. It simply means we have to stop making success an all-or-nothing issue and instead focus on incremental improvement with occasional failure as a measure of success.

My personal promise to focus on progress ultimately means a willingness to take risks and cheerfully make mistakes in the learning process. But it’s not easy. The reward of learning from mistakes serves to lessen the fear of failure, but it doesn’t make it go away completely.

And that is the fine line trainers walk. We tell trainees our classrooms are safe havens in which people can freely err, but the training room is not without its own set of perceived dangers to trainees. There are plenty of personal and professional pitfalls into which they might fall.

So we need to ask ourselves what we are doing—consciously and unconsciously—to encourage attendees to take risks in the classroom and learn from their mistakes. Do we structure activities so risk is encouraged and failure brings the opportunity to learn? Or do we rely on “safe” exercises that simply get both us and the trainees through the day? Do we celebrate all kinds of learning—whether it comes from success or failure?

These are important questions to consider as we balance our trainees’ need to seek perfection while also accepting and learning from their mistakes.

I’d welcome your reactions on this. Drop me a line at Bob@CTTNewseltters.com with “Learning from Mistakes” as the subject line.

Until next time—continue to add value and make a difference.

Bob Pike, CSP, CPLP FELLOW, CPAESpeakers Hall of Fame, is known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Creative Training Techniques Handbook” and his newest book, “The Master Trainer’s Handbook.” You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook using bobpikectt.