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Learning from mistakes is easier said than done

We all know the stories about failed experiments, ricochets and journeys in the wrong direction that resulted in things that have changed our modern world like Post-its, the microwave or even the discovery of America. At the heart of it, these look like big mistakes with results that are so far removed from their original goal. ‘Yeah, but great things were achieved by them!’ – we can say this now, and it is true of course. But would you also see it like that if you had made the mistake? Or one of your employees?

Allow a culture of mistakes

Whether it is in private or professional life, making mistakes is treated negatively and there is probably not a boss who will recognise you for a mistake and pat you on the back. From a business point of view, an error costs money – and big mistakes cost lots of money. Personally, we consider errors a source of shame, because we are afraid that our competencies and our intelligence will be assessed negatively.

Of course, our first impulse it to avoid errors, to prevent both further expense and further damage to our image. We tread well-trod paths that we know to be safe because we can rely on them to be successful, and don’t take any risks. We love routines, because they offer us security.

But to develop innovations, to ignite explosions of thought, to be creative or simply to go through life a bit more relaxed, we have to break out of this comfort zone and commit to facing risks unafraid. This can only happen if a positive mistake culture is nurtured. I don’t want to make a plea to make mistakes, I want to encourage you to develop your attitude toward seeing mistakes as a welcome part of life and in doing so become free of the fear, the drama, and the loss of image. We gladly allow our children to make the mistakes that they have to make in order to learn on one condition: if possible, don’t make the same mistake twice. But what happened to the idea of lifelong learning? Why should trial and error no longer be an option in professional life? When children make mistakes, they are rising to their top form. Then maybe businesses could act the same with the achievements of their employees, in which mistakes are considered and reviewed in a relaxed atmosphere. ‘If we could make mistakes without the fear of losing status, we would be able to perform better, and then we would, indeed, make fewer mistakes,’ wrote individual psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs, back in 1971.

Learning from mistakes is easier said than done

Learning from mistakes is easier said than done

Inner censor

Learning from mistakes sounds banal, but it is more difficult than it seems. It depends on both our own inner censor that warns us against taking risks or doing unusual things to protect us from mistakes, disgrace and uncertainties, and on our own responsiveness to thinking outside the box and trying something new. In our environment it is an even bigger challenge to not immediately react to mistakes with accusations, insults and other social penalties. To handle mistakes positively and make them useful is only possible if they are firstly professionally analysed and then if the cause can be identified, so that actions can be taken to prevent the mistake from happening again. The most important principle here is to take mistakes out of the grey areas of cover ups, hiding and denial. That puts errors – this is the core idea – in an open atmosphere where they can be discussed without self-defence reflexes. Businesses and supervisors are asked to offer their employees a platform for exchange that considers the theme without blame or excuses.

Keep your mind flexible with the three rules of ‘navituition’!

Mistake management in businesses and organisations are the one side. The ideal picture. Positive handling of errors doesn’t come overnight, but you just have to start! And allow the ideal development of mistakes. And to firms: don’t criticise your employees in brainstorming sessions, because that is poisonous. Motivate your employees to formulate as many ideas and strategies as possible, if necessary anonymously, so that even when an idea is average, it can spark a genial approach.

You can start small and get your inner censors to be a bit milder and not so strict on you. Start with yourself, in your private life, and train yourself to have a relaxed relationship with mistakes. Personally, I always work a quote from the psychologist Ruth Cohn in my seminars, ‘every plan has to be wrong because all the factors can never be known. Good preparation paired with spontaneous relaxation brings the best results.’ I call that navituition.

Accordingly I think the following three skills are the key competences to handle things more casually:

  1. React to situations with yes. When you say yes, you stay in movement and drive the project, the conversation of the idea further. With no, everything stops.
  2. Allow possible errors. Because all factors can never be known, everything can’t go perfectly.
  3. Be in the moment. Then you can react to a situation with an eye on the available means.

Four experiments for more flexibility

Start on the weekend with a personal attempt – be open for new things! Say yes, let yourself be inspired, and look at what happens – and what happens to you! ‘And when people look at me funny? Or I and standing around alone? Or I feel silly?’ (There it is again – your inner censor.) Well, then you have a story to tell on Monday!

  1. Try a different drink in your favourite café. If you don’t want to skip your coffee, try with a different bean or roast. Or enjoy a tea or coffee seminar. Or a wine seminar.
  2. Be spontaneous and visit a live exhibition this week. People that go to concerts, theatre performances and exhibitions are, according to a British study, happier and in better spirits. A breeding ground for creativity.
  3. Talk to a stranger. If someone seems nice, just talk to them. Or politely ask to sit with an older couple in a café. Or with an old captain. Talk to young entrepreneurs, selling their products at a design market, extremely inspired.
  4. Get to know your environment, your city. Go to another district. Leave your neighbourhood on the weekend and look for a nice café, when apple pie is still homemade on the premises. Smell it, taste it, enjoy it.

It doesn’t matter what you plan, don’t wait for the perfect moment. It won’t come. Take the moment and make it perfect!

Stay flexible,
Ralf Schmitt


Ralf Schmitt has published two books:

Ich bin total spontan, wenn man mir rechtzeitig Bescheid gibt  Ich bin total beliebt, es weiß nur keiner

“Ich bin total spontan, wenn man mir rechtzeitig Bescheid gibt” is published by Ariston Verlag (ISBN-13: 978-3424200416). “Ich bin total beliegt, es weiß nur keiner!” is published by Orell Füssli  (ISBN-13: 978-3280055014). You can find them here:

With almost twenty years of experience on the stage as a moderator and a key note speaker, Ralf Schmitt gives a special note to every event – be it a discussion, board conference or an international fair. His lectures and moderations are authentic, funny and tailored to the public. He is a spontaneity expert and can therefore guarantee a professional appearance if there are any unplanned complications. His books, ‘I am completely spontaneous if you let me know first’ and ‘I am extremely popular, it’s just that no one knows’ build the foundations of his lectures as he leads the public to become more flexible in their minds and to behave more spontaneously. He is also the co-author of the book ‘The best ideas for more humour’. You can book Ralf Schmitt as a trainer or a speaker. For questions you can contact him at, or look at his website for more information.

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