Mistakes: The Secret to Happiness

Steve Roberts black ink drawing: unicycle with a square tire

In your life, are mistakes generally celebrated or punished?  Which is prevalent––in your workplace, in your home, in your mind?  In the organization you lead?

Here’s where I’m going with this.

Professionals who research such things are finding what those rare individuals with common sense have known forever: that mistakes aren’t events to be discouraged.  On the contrary, mistakes should be welcomed as opportunities to build bridges of understanding.  The happiest people and the most gifted problem solvers are those who enjoy learning from their miscues.

Let me be even more explicit: Without developing the ability to learn from our mistakes, we have zero chance of fulfilling our potential––as human beings, as  organizations, as a nation.

That the messiness of exploration is less rewarded in our culture than the tidy right answer is not surprising (given, say, the reverence afforded test scores in education and sustained profit growth in business), but the degree of imbalance between the two is noteworthy.  It undermines the development of the single most important characteristic of a healthy person or institution: resilience––the ability to respond in a positive way to whatever life presents.

In the insightful book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, there is a story about Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who, according to Lehrer, “has spent decades demonstrating that one of the crucial ingredients of successful education is the ability to learn from mistakes….  Unfortunately, children are often taught the exact opposite.  Instead of praising kids for trying hard, teachers typically praise them for their innate intelligence (being smart).  Dweck has shown that this type of encouragement actually backfires since it leads students to see mistakes as signs of stupidity and not the building blocks of knowledge.  The regrettable outcome is that kids never learn how to learn.”

“Never” meaning they grow up to be adults who aren’t all that good at solving problems––especially those problems that require the ability to manage fear, since that is the key to managing change, the dominant challenge of life in today’s world.

If you’re interested in the research that supports Dweck’s contentions, here’s what Jonah Lehrer wrote:

Dweck’s most famous study was conducted in twelve different New York City schools and involved more than four hundred fifth-graders.  One at a time, the kids were removed from class and given a relatively easy test consisting of nonverbal puzzles.  After the child finished the test, the researchers told the student his or her score and provided a single sentence of praise.  Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence.  “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said.  The other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

The students were then allowed to choose between two different subsequent tests.  The first choice was described as a more difficult set of puzzles, but the kids were told that they’d learn a lot from attempting it.  The other option was an easy test, similar to the test they’d just taken.

When Dweck was designing the experiment, she’d expected the different forms of praise to have a rather modest effect.  After all, it was just one sentence.  But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth-graders dramatically influenced their choice of tests.  Of the group of kids that had been praised for their efforts, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles.  However, of the kids that were praised for their intelligence, most went for the easier test.  “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

Dweck’s next set of experiments showed how this fear of failure actually inhibited learning.  She gave the same fifth-graders yet another test.  This test was designed to be extremely difficult––it was originally written for eighth-graders––but Dweck wanted to see how the kids would respond to the challenge.  The students who had been praised for their efforts in the initial test worked hard at figuring out the puzzles.  “They got very involved,” Dweck says.  “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’”  Kids that had initially been praised for their smarts, on the other hand, were easily discouraged.  Their inevitable mistakes were seen as a sign of failure: perhaps they really weren’t smart after all.  After taking this difficult test, the two groups of students had to choose between looking at the exams of kids those who did worse than them and looking at the exams of those who did better.  Students praised for their intelligence almost always chose to bolster their self-esteem by comparing themselves with students who had performed worse on the test.  In contrast, kids praised for their hard work were more interested in the higher-scoring exams.  They wanted to understand their mistakes, to learn from their errors, to figure out how to do better.

The final round of tests was the same difficulty level as the initial test.  Nevertheless, students who’d been praised for their efforts exhibited significant improvement, raising their average score by 30 percent.  Because these kids were willing to challenge themselves, even if it meant failing at first, they ended up performing at a much higher level.  This result was even more impressive when compared with students who’d been randomly assigned to the “smart” group; they saw their scores drop by an average of nearly 20 percent.  The experience of failure had been so discouraging for the “smart” kids that they actually regressed.

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence––the “smart” compliment––is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education.  It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning, which is learning from mistakes.  Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.  Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail.  There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.

Obviously, this story is not just about fifth-graders.  It’s about each of us and our willingness, our courage, to learn from every experience we have, especially those that reveal to us the vastness of our ignorance and our fear of it––not because we’re deficient, but because we’re human.




  1. Hey Steve, You reminded me of a conversation I had with my brother, a prominent physical chemist, and my Dad who taight statistics for years before retirement. We were talking last summer about error and how basically all of modern science depends on error. The prediction of error ranges validates experiments. But the greatest discoveries are usually from the biggest blunders. It was my bro’s 50th birthday so I found a book for him on Einstein’s errors. Most of his work was pure garbage apparently. Yeah! there’s still hope for me. ;o)

  2. Great one Steve–and encouraging! I must be going to be really smart someday cause I’m making mistakes all the time! Thanks and keep on. Jim

  3. Hi Steve:

    Our brains are such amazing things. But to me, a reliance upon my raw intelligence as a metric and a standard towards an outcome seems to have little or no long-term value. Here’s why I think this is true.

    In this short term of course my ego is fed. (Within this simple context, my ego is that self-projected appearance of me to be encountered by myself and those around me.) As I said, this component gets fed. It’s a very big feeling for a very short moment.

    Due to lack of challenge, for me the test is soon forgotten – the memory of the test rolls on over to the ‘Trivial Pursuit’ segment of my cranium for processing and archival. There is no significance established other than a completely relative reinforcement of the fact that I am smart. So big deal…

    Beyond this, without one or more errors, what about any such test would compel me to even remember it? Without errors, without their cause, context and subsequent solution and then their impact upon me what gain is there from a modest test?

    Errors have become like bookmarks – friends to me. If I sail through a test, this causes me to feel good knowing that my apparent degree of intelligence has again been reenforced. But such a feeling is quite fleeting.

    Oh! Did I make some errors? Then I’m compelled to correct them…and this by virtue of that compulsive need I have inside of me to always be accurate. With errors, I invest far more of myself into the failed test in order to correct these and this further self-investment, is obviously a far deeper thing than just being smart and correct all the time.

    Reliance upon this as some basis for an ego-stroke is a lie. Although I may have chosen this life and what tools I might have wanted to more easily move through it…such as a high IQ, I really can’t take credit for that IQ…I asked for it and then it was given to me. GIVEN. It would be like taking credit for my looks if I am handsome. I cannot in good conscience take credit for this. I asked for them before my birth and they were GIVEN.

    The correction of my errors becomes a means to an end…the satisfaction of correcting these and learning from them in the end causes any failed test to be a completely worthwhile and significant involvement.

  4. Steve,

    Great post that captures the need to reward “the messiness of exploration.” How can schools get closer to that goal? We read Carol Dweck’s book as a full faculty at my school. It has really “re-cultured” how teachers give feedback and now this conversation is moving in to how we assess kids’ learning.

    Steve (Meg’s husband:)

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth