We’ve all heard the old saying ‘you learn from your mistakes’, but trial and error really is a significant part of how our brains and skills develop. Think of a toddler learning to walk, a gymnast perfecting a routine, or a Bake-Off contestant cooking the same cake 20 times in preparation for a Showstopper challenge.
Psychologists at Michigan State University have shown that in order to learn from our mistakes, it helps to have a ‘growth mindset’ – or a belief that intelligence is something we can work on and develop. In a study of 123 children, they observed that those who thought intelligence was not fixed paid more attention to their mistakes, and so learned more.
Not all mistakes have upsides, but many of them do – just ask anyone who’s ever found a few pounds down the back of the sofa while looking for their lost keys. But errors made by inventors have led to even greater discoveries, including the microwave, the pacemaker and the Post-It note.
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.Oscar Wild
If it weren’t for a small mistake made by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928, the last 90 years could have looked very different. Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin after a petri dish he had left out while on holiday became contaminated with the mould penicillium notatum. He noticed that where the mould grew bacteria didn’t, and this led to the development and production of penicillin. Since then, the infection-fighting drug has helped save millions of lives.
When Oscar Wilde wrote that “experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”, his wit hit on something pretty important: messing things up is a crucial part of learning about ourselves and our lives.
Fail a big exam and you’ll find out how you deal with real disappointment. Knock over a treasured family heirloom and you’ll learn whether you can handle awkward conversations. Or, if you’re the 19th-century preacher William Miller, mistakenly convince thousands of people that Armageddon is imminent and you’ll find out if you’re brave enough to own up to the error.
On the morning of 22 October 1844, Miller was faced with thousands of distraught disciples when the Second Coming of Jesus he had foretold failed to materialise. Despite anger and mockery, Miller faced up to his mistake, issuing an ‘Apology and Defense’ in which he said: "We expected the personal coming of Christ at that time; and now to contend that we were not mistaken, is dishonest. We should never be ashamed to frankly confess all our errors."
Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” While fear of failure can often prevent us from trying new things, accepting mistakes as a part of life can have the opposite effect – freeing us up to pursue our goals without limitation.
In her 2008 speech to graduating students at Harvard University, author JK Rowling described how feeling that she had failed ‘on an epic scale’ in her mid-twenties – when her marriage broke down and she and her daughter were living in poverty – was what ultimately helped her succeed as a writer.
She says: “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me... I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”
From Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors to John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, many of our most popular comedies are built on gaffes and misunderstandings – because, with a bit of distance, mistakes can be very funny. So, while you may still cringe about getting locked out of the house in your pyjamas this morning, chances are you’ll soon be chuckling about it.