Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why journal your mistakes?

I am reading a Harvard Business School working paper, entitled "Learning From My Success and From Others' Failure: Evidence from Minimally-Invasive Cardiac Surgery." The key finding is right there in the title. We learn better from others' mistakes than from our own. This is largely due to the "self-attribution bias" that behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman discovered - in our limited perspective, we ascribe our successes to our abilities and efforts, while we blame failures on external circumstances. 

This means we by nature carry a large blind spot around with us--it's hard, and unnatural, to reflect on and scrutinize our own actions to look for areas of improvement. In fact, it can make us feel bad about ourselves - not a good situation for learning, no?

Here's where journaling comes in. When something goes awry, all you need to do is write it down. Classify it as a Mistake and move on. Then, weeks later, after the intensity and emotions of the moment have dissipated, you look back at it, think about it. What happened? Think about your role - recognize that mistakes and failures are owned by groups, but self-improvement is your task alone. (This is having a sense of agency.) What could you have done differently that could have affected the outcome? Next time your face a similar circumstance, how will you handle it?

Documenting and reflecting on mistakes isn't easy. It's a discipline that needs to be learned. But think about this: according to the Harvard paper, most people don't learn well from their own mistakes. If you can be one of the few that do, it puts you at a tremendous advantage. That advantage will create opportunities, and allow you to capitalize on them.

If you'd like to try a free journaling app that was created to aid in this process, sign up here.


  1. Wasn't it Churchill who said: If you learn from your mistakes you are a fool. You should learn from other people's mistakes... ;)

  2. I'd agree with him if he added "only"..."if you only learn from your own mistakes..."