How Making Mistakes Can Be Used to Your Advantage

Your fear of making mistakes is subtly and slowly ruining your life.

Maybe your life isn’t tragic; maybe it’s pretty good. But admit it. There’s a much higher version of yourself and your life that you could have, but the thought of making mistakes along the way scares you.

There’s no way around making mistakes in life, but you can change your relationship with them.

Here’s how to use mistakes to your advantage.


View mistakes as successes

I’m reading a book based on the shareholder letters Jeff Bezos has written every year since 1997. It talks about some of the core values at Amazon and why it’s become one of the best businesses ever created.

Bezos believes in “successful failures.”

Most people (and business owners)  try to avoid failure at all costs. For Bezos, it’s literally part of his business plan.

From Bezos:

One of my jobs is to encourage people to be bold. It’s incredibly hard. Experiments are, by their nature, prone to failure. A few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.

Not only does he use it as a personal mantra, but he also encourages every employee at the company to try new ways of operating. If you swing big and make a mistake at Amazon, you won’t get in trouble for trying.

Contrast this with most corporate cultures, where office politics causes people to be timid to maintain their position and status. The system as a whole, from work to education, focuses on punishing people for making mistakes, which is why so many of us are afraid to take risks at all.

You’ll never know whether or not a strategy will work until you try it. You can make educated guesses, but if people had the ability to predict the future, nobody would take risks in the first place.

Amazon infamously launched a phone to compete with the iPhone, but it was a total dud, costing them tens of millions of dollars in the process. They did, however, get valuable tech insights that they used to form other popular products like the Echo and its Alexa system.

“I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Literally [...] None of those things are fun, but they also don’t matter. What really matters is that companies that don’t continue to experiment – companies that don’t embrace failure – they eventually get into a desperate position, where the only thing they can do is make a ‘Hail Mary’ bet at the very end of their corporate existence. I don’t believe in bet-the-company bets.” —Jeff Bezos

Think of your life. How many people experience something similar to a company hail mary? The infamous mid-life crisis when people realize how much time they’ve spent avoiding bold moves.

Regardless of where you are in life, it’s time to view your failures as successes because of what you learn.

Most failures aren’t total failures. Some parts of the process went well, and others didn’t. The mistakes you make are mistakes you know not to make again. If you figure out what doesn’t work, you’ve eliminated a future path, bringing you closer to the answer. You can carry the ideas, strategies, and insights from what went well into future decisions.

Bezos believes in taking calculated but major bets on the future. He’s willing to pay the price of failure because he knows that, eventually, he’ll find winning ideas in the long run. Turns out his intuition was right. Maybe you should adopt a similar mindset.


Realize mistakes bring you closer to the answer

When you give yourself time to make mistakes, you’ll reach the life you want in the long run.

Think of yourself as someone who runs experiments.

You’re trying different strategies to see what works. Taking the wrong step doesn’t make you wrong. It just means you tried one thing on the path of many things you’ll try, making several mistakes along the way, to get what you want.

Thomas Edison’s quote comes to mind:

I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.

Learn how to correct course over time. Most people fall into the trap of making the same mistake over and over again. We learn quickly from physical mistakes—you only need to touch a hot stove once to keep you from ever doing it again.

Emotional patterns are different because we crave the familiar. We self-sabotage because it maintains our identity. If you see yourself as a screw-up, you’ll keep screwing up on purpose, even if it’s on a subconscious level.

Instead, stop seeing every little mistake as a permanent black mark on your character. Start making more mistakes and repeating fewer of them. 

I once launched a product that got zero sales. It hurt badly and made me want to quit, but I didn’t. I didn’t ask or try to figure out what people wanted. Instead, I made what I thought was a good product.

These days, I do lots of market research, conduct surveys, and validate my products by getting people to buy them before I make them. I learned from my mistake once and never repeated it.

Keep plowing forward with your experiments, make mistakes, and avoid repeating the same ones. Run enough experiments over a lifetime, and one of them will work.



Avoid the pain of making certain mistakes altogether

Learning from mistakes can help you use them to your advantage, but who says they have to be your mistakes?

You can learn from the mistakes of others to avoid strategies that definitely won’t work.

Charlie Munger calls this inversion:

Figure out what doesn’t work and don’t do those things.

Look at the people you know.

What do the people you know with bad lives all have in common?

What mistakes have most or all of them made? 

People are leaving clues for you everywhere with their behavior. You know this logically, but you have to take the time to study other people and act on that information.

Also, stand on the shoulders of the people who have come before you. Read autobiographies of people you want to be like. They’ll tell you the ups, downs, highs, lows, and all the mistakes they made along the way.

Watch and listen to interviews of successful people. They can help you shortcut the process by helping you avoid the same roadblock they did.

Take an online course instead of trying to piece together free information. The person who created that course had to sift through information and make mistakes to give you a clean, simple, easy-to-follow process. Use it.

The mistakes of others can help you save time.


The three-step process to overcoming past mistakes

Even if you’re at the point where you want to learn from your mistakes, you might also be at a point in your life where you made so many mistakes you’re left with a life you don’t want.

This creates inertia — the opposite of momentum, the feeling of being stuck.

Lots of us let the days, months, and years fly by. Next thing you know, we’re settled into a groove we built through the mistakes we made over time. Maybe you chose the wrong career. Maybe you married the wrong person. There were a bunch of times when you could’ve taken a big or small risk that you passed on.

Whatever it may be, taking a brutally honest self-assessment and a complete inventory of your life can help you move forward. Almost no one does this because it’s hard. Who wants to admit they may have fumbled years of their lives? Who wants to fully accept that? For most people, it’s just too much to stomach, so they rationalize.

Whatever time has passed…has passed. There’s nothing you can do about it.

You can, however, use this process to learn from your accumulation of mistakes and start over.


Step 1: Stop digging

The mistakes you’ve made create a hole you have to dig yourself out of.

As hard as it is, the first step is to stop messing up.

If you’re out of shape, there has to be a day one where you stop eating bad food and being sedentary. If you feel like you chose the wrong career, you will have to choose a new path and quit that career even though you’ve spent years building it. Maybe you’re in a toxic or loveless relationship but afraid to be alone. You have to leave.

The comfort of continuing to dig a deeper hole once you’ve already been digging is one of the most intoxicating forces known to humans. It’s just as much of an addiction as a chemical one. There’s no patch or gum for emotional patterns. You just have to quit. 


Step 2: Do a dispassionate analysis of the past

You only benefit from thinking about the past when you use that information.

Most people dwell on the past in a way that doesn’t help them. They keep wishing things would’ve turned out differently. They try to picture what life would be like had they not made those mistakes. This is a great way to make yourself feel even worse about what happened, which is what most people do.

The only path forward is objectively looking at what happened, almost as if you were an outside observer.

  • What mistakes did you make?
  • Why did you make those mistakes?
  • What mental and emotional patterns cause you to continually make those mistakes?

The more honest you are, the more responsibility you take for the situation. The more you accept what happened, the more it will hurt, but the better off you’ll be.


Step 3: Start over

It is what it is, and you are where you are. You have to start from wherever that point is.

I spent the ages of 18-25 becoming the exact opposite type of person that I knew I should’ve become. I dug myself a deep hole. This gave me plenty of evidence of what I didn’t want to be like, so I just did the opposite of what I had done.

Instead of drinking and doing drugs, I cleaned up my health habits.

Instead of dulling my mind with non-stop TV, I picked up a book.

Usually, I’d give up on new strategies quickly. This time, I told myself I was changing my life for good, and I meant it.

All it takes to change your life and start over is to decide you will change for good and mean it.


There’s only one way to become a true failure

It’s not the mistakes that screw you up; it’s the interpretation of the mistakes. Many people assign certain meanings to things when they don’t have to. Worse, they act as if the meaning they assign is objective.

I’ve come across a lot of people who I consider perpetual losers. They just expect life to suck, so inevitably, it does. There’s nothing you can tell them to turn them optimistic. Trying to help them actually makes them defensive.

If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t one of those people, but ask yourself where you can see a sliver of yourself in someone like this. What stories do you tell yourself about your mistakes that keep you stuck? What mistakes are you trying to avoid making out of embarrassment? Where are you failing to start because, deep down, you just don’t think it’ll work out? Why are you so afraid of uncertainty?

We all have a little bit of this character in us, and the only way to overcome it is through massive, relentless, non-stop action. You will get embarrassed, some of the things you try won’t work, and it’ll definitely be a bumpy ride. But you’ll survive, and it will be oh-so-worth it.

How many people in this world really take life by the horns and just go for it? 

Basically no one.

Maybe you’ll be the exception.