Learning From Your Mistakes: Ask “What,” Not “Why”

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Psycho-Cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Can you think of a life lesson you learned by making a mistake? Where did you go wrong? Did ever repeat the same mistake again?

Learning from your mistakes is essential to living a happy, fulfilled, and successful life. Everyone eventually learns from their mistakes once they’ve repeated them several times. But it shouldn’t take many repetitions to learn to avoid suboptimal or self-sabotaging behaviors. If you consciously examine your life on a consistent basis, you will see patterns quickly.

The key to learning from your mistakes is to think about them rationally, not emotionally.

Scrutinize Your Failures

Learning from your mistakes is a part of life. However, most people repeat mistakes many times before they internalize their lessons. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If make a conscious effort to analyze where you went wrong, you won’t have to repeat the same mistake over and over again.

In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, author Maxwell Maltz suggests asking yourself logical questions about the facts of the situation as a way to force yourself to focus on figuring out the real cause of your mistake and your goals instead of focusing on identifying with the mistake. Further, questioning yourself rationally helps you to immediately seek solutions to the mistake so you can bolster your potential for success in the future. This process will turn every mistake and failure into an opportunity to learn and break your pattern of responding negatively to situations.

For example, you failed an exam. You could either mope around and identify with the failure: “I failed my exam (fact), therefore I am a failure (cause).” Or you could just state the fact: “I failed the exam,” and seek the real cause by asking yourself logical questions:

  • Why did you fail the exam?
  • Were you prepared for the exam?
  • How can you better prepare yourself for the next exam?

Ask Yourself “What” Instead of “Why”

Sometimes, when you’re feeling emotional, it’s difficult to think rationally about a mistake you’ve made. You may inadvertently ask yourself questions that reinforce your errors and the negative emotions you feel. According to Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, you’re more likely to discover effective solutions to your problems, and train yourself away from identifying with your mistakes, when you ask yourself “what” instead of “why” questions in response to mistakes.

Asking “why” questions about your past mistakes will only lead you to focus on your failures and errors. You may end up engaging emotionally with your mistakes instead of switching your focus to the success you want to achieve. For example, you failed an exam because you didn’t study, you weren’t prepared enough, or you just didn’t know the right answers. In other words, your responses emphasize that you didn’t do enough and your failure is due to an error on your part. 

On the other hand, asking “what” questions will allow you to bypass the act of focusing on your errors and lead you directly to the solutions you seek to make. This process will allow you to take a step back from your mistakes and focus objectively on the solutions that will serve you. For example, asking yourself “what do you need to do to pass the exam?” instead of “why did you fail the exam?” will lead you directly to the actions you need to take to improve your chances of success in the future. 

Learning From Your Mistakes: Ask “What,” Not “Why”

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Here's what you'll find in our full Psycho-Cybernetics summary :

  • How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
  • How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
  • Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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