They say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I would add a third: mistakes. We all commit errors; often small ones, sometimes big ones, and all too frequently the same ones.

What if I told you that it’s critically important to learn from our mistakes? Do you know what Michael Phelps, Warren Buffett, Amazon and Delta Force commandos have in common? After studying some of the world’s top performers, teams and organizations, I’ve discovered that they all systematically profit from their errors. This practice is also a superb strategy for success in your personal and professional lives. It’s the fastest, simplest and most powerful method to improve yourself or your team’s performance.

This will sound a bit counterintuitive, but hear me out.

We have far more to earn from failure than we can learn from success.

For one, successes are often either spontaneous or serendipitous. In contrast, failures are frequently systematic. How many times have you committed the same mistake? It's a particularly cruel tenet of the human condition that we tend to make the same errors over and over. Whether it's something as innocuous as going to the net in tennis behind a weak serve, or more ominous activities such as sabotaging your career with bad office behaviour, most of us are guilty of repeating both big and small miscues. Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it; the same can be said of mistakes. To avoid the Sissyphean fate of constantly rolling our personal boulder up a hill only to have it fall down the other side, we owe it to ourselves to identify and ultimately eliminate that error-producing behaviour. It's more important to analyze setbacks than try to replicate 'random' successes. As Esther Dyson puts it, "always make new mistakes."

Another reason to focus on failure is that, in some senses, it's easier. Much as we'd like to, it's very hard to 'reverse-engineer' and reproduce winning performances. Failures, once understood, are then easier to avoid.

Finally, it's limiting. Focusing solely on successes while ignoring failures is a bit like trying to be profitable while only looking at the revenue side of the balance sheet;  in ignoring costs (or mistakes), we’re only attacking half of the problem.

The next time you hear a success story, ignore it. Chances are that 'success' was more about chance than conscious choice; moreover, you’re unlikely to be able to repeat the combination of moves that led to that fortuitous outcome. Rather, search out examples of massive, abject failures - either in real life or in your life - and try to deconstruct what went wrong and why. By uncovering the root causes of those errors, you can learn how not to repeat them. As you wean yourself off wrong decisions, you will actually edge ever closer to success - in a way that is more organic (as opposed to reverse-engineered), systematic (as opposed to spontaneous) and sustainable (as opposed to serendipitous).

The perfect definition of the German concept of Schadenfreude comes from de la Rochefoucauld: "it's not enough that I succeed; my friends must also fail." Let me paraphrase that to capture my view on mistakes: it's not necessary for us to succeed, so much as we need to avoid failure. Maneuvering through life without making mistakes may actually lead to extraordinary success, and steering clear of errors - especially systematic, repeated and avoidable ones - seems to constitute more than half the battle. So forget success, and focus on failure; you'll ultimately be glad - and more successful - that you did.


Ion Valis is a horizontal thinker who has pursued a portfolio career in politics, technology, strategy consulting and social entrepreneurship. He’s been a press secretary on Capitol Hill, an executive at the world’s largest mobile phone company in London, served in the senior management team at a technology start-up in Montreal, run his own strategy consulting firm and in 2015 published a book on the best way to for individuals and organizations to make magnificent mistakes. He is currently President of  the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, an international organization empowering next generation public leadership.

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