The Power of Making Mistakes – Learning by Failing

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Let’s take a step back in time back to my first semester of Computer Science grad school. Stepping into my first class I was filled with nervous excitement. The class was taught by Dr. Gelfond, one of the most respected individuals in the artificial intelligence sector.

As class progressed I witnessed a disturbing trend. Instead of simply lecturing us like our other professors, Dr. Gelfond constantly called students up front to write programs on the chalkboard or to describe a concept he discussed.

This wouldn’t be a big deal, except that he made a habit of calling us up front specifically when it was clear that we did not understand the concept.

Was he cruel? Did he want to make us look ignorant in front of the entire class?

Secret Weapon to Mastery: Making Mistakes

Actually the opposite was true. Instead Dr. Gelfond cared enough about us that he imparted to us the secret weapon to mastery: making mistakes.

Wait, making mistakes is the opposite of what our mind tells us to do, right? Making mistakes is embarrassing. Mistakes tell the world that we don’t understand a concept.

However making mistakes also provides a number of powerful tools that anyone interested in learning should be aware of.

Making Mistakes: Memory Steroids

First and foremost, when you make mistakes, especially publicly, you’re going to feel like you’re taking memory steroids. How so? When I think back to Dr. Gelfond’s class I still remember every mistake I made when I was called in front of the class. The memories generated by making mistakes are so vivid that they can be recalled, even years later like mine.

Now obviously simply remembering the mistakes by themselves would be pointless. However in addition to remembering what I did wrong, more importantly I remember what I had to do to correct my mistake. It’s been over three years since I took that class, but I can still remember each of the key concepts that he taught us. And I can tell you from experience that I cannot say the same thing about all of the classes I’ve taken.

Mistakes Force Learning

Another benefit to making mistakes is that they force you to learn. No one likes being wrong. So assuming that you have a passion for knowledge, you can use the memory of making mistakes to help motivate you to learn a concept properly.

If Dr. Gelfond would have simply stood in front of the class and lectured for the entire semester I most likely would have studied enough to do well on the tests and leave it at that.

However, because I constantly had the thought in the back of my mind that I may have to be called up in front of the class to write a program or describe a concept it forced me to study harder than I would have for a test. This healthy fear took me from simply being able to remember a concept to truly mastering it.

Mistakes Kill Pride

Lastly making mistakes helps to kill pride. Proverbs 16:18 says:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

One of the largest obstacles to learning is pride. Anyone puffed up with pride will find that their learning progress will come to a halt. When someone is filled with pride they can’t see beyond their own limited knowledge.

Thankfully, if you embrace the process of learning by making mistakes, pride will never be able to stake a claim in you. By their very nature mistakes force you to realize that you don’t know everything, and that you have more to learn… which we all do.

Summary

So whether you are just learning to code from scratch or if you’re a seasoned developer, never be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes reveal that you’re traversing into new territory that you’ve never been before, which is what you need to do to go from mediocrity to mastery.

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