Why getting things wrong is the best way to learn

A client walked into our office one day. In his hand was a hard disk - a 5 1/4 inch hard disk, big as they were in those days (this is back in the early 90's). "We have six months of development work on this disk.", he said. "The disk seems to have crashed, and we have no backups. Can you help?"

This is every software development person's nightmare. You (and in this case, a team of other developers), have slaved for six months to create a piece of software, and now all your work is lost. You would go to extraordinary lengths to recover the work.

I spent three days with the disk. It was indeed trashed - actually not trashed, the files had all just been deleted. The data was still on the disk, but the directory and file structure was gone. After three days I had to go back to the client and offer my apologies - it would take me as long to recover the data as it would to re-do the work. They had to restart from scratch.

In the process of trying to recover the data from the disk, I learnt more about the UNIX file system, i-nodes, disk block chains and hex editors than I ever thought I wanted to know. I was not able to rescue the code they had written, but in the process of trying to fix it I learnt an incredible amount about stuff that very few other people knew about.

If that disk had not crashed I would never have had reason to dive into the arcane mysteries of UNIX file systems. I had learnt something - but only because something had gone wrong.

And this is how we learn most things in life - when things go wrong.

Learning in business

In that example I was working directly with a hard disk and I learnt something not many people would be exposed to. But we don't just learn from esoteric situations; we learn from life every day. And it's only when we get it wrong that we make really big jumps forward.

When you graduate from school and start a new job you're filled with knowledge. You're eager to put that knowledge to work and show your new employers what you're made of. And sometimes we succeed at doing that; we create something great, get praise for what we've done and feel really good about ourselves.

But most of the time our work is not quite what was needed. Sometimes we have to "fix" things under the direction of our colleagues; sometimes they will just take it over and produce something we almost don't recognise. If we're lucky we learn how to do it better, other times we just have to guess why our version was not that good.

If you're really lucky you get someone who will take you under their wing and teach you why things need to be done differently. They "show you the ropes", help you get ahead faster and make fewer mistakes. They point out the things that could go wrong if you did it that particular way, and how you can do it differently so things don't go wrong.

When things are running smoothly, we just learn to keep them running that way.

The point of all of this is that we're learning by making mistakes. When things run smoothly we just learn to keep them running that way. We stick to the way things are right now because there are no problems. And in the process we only learn how to do things the way things are done right now.

And it's the same in our relationships.

Learning in relationships

We only learn how to get better in our relationships with other people when things go wrong. And these are sometimes the hardest lessons to learn.

Just as in business, relationships are great when things run smoothly. There is no friction, we just continue doing what we're doing and life is great. But as we all know, this doesn't last forever. Somehow, somewhere along the line we're going to do something that really upsets the other person, and we're faced with the unpleasant realisation that perhaps we're not as perfect as we thought we were.

Of all the lessons we have to learn the ones about ourselves are the hardest.

And this is good and right and as things should be. It's not easy though - of all the lessons we have to learn the ones about ourselves are the hardest. Of course we don't do things to deliberately hurt others; of course we didn't do "that thing" because we were vindictive or small-minded. We did it because we meant well, or because we just weren't thinking far enough ahead.

So something goes wrong and someone points out that we were a jerk. Our initial reaction is usually self-defence; after all, we didn't mean any harm. It's only when we can let down our guard that we really learn what it may look like from the other side; and only then that we realise when we do that thing it hurts someone else. And sometimes we have to see, hear and feel the lesson over and over again before we learn it.

But there's good news: if you're willing, you will be learning how to get better at this thing called life.

We've gotten it wrong more times than anyone else

From 2005 to 2010 I ran a consultancy company in the UK specialising in technology systems for broadcast television. The team that I worked with were exceptional - each member of the team had 20+ years experience in their particular field of expertise in broadcast TV technology. Some of my colleagues were world experts in their areas of expertise.

We sometimes told prospective clients that "we've gotten it wrong more times than anyone else". We knew what worked and what didn't work, we knew when things were about to go wrong, and part of the value that we brought to the table was that experience. We knew when a system design was flawed because we had seen similar designs go wrong before. We knew how to make it work.

The combination of experience, doing leading-edge (sometimes bleeding edge) systems design and implementation, and a willingness to admit mistakes and do what it takes to fix them made this one of the best teams I've ever worked with. And that's the key to learning when things go wrong:

You're going to make mistakes. We all do. You can choose to learn from them - or not.

We're "only" human

We don't want to make mistakes. But we do - in business, in our relationships, when we're driving somewhere. That's because life is complex and we're human - we make mistakes.

We can't use "we're only human" as an excuse for repeatedly making the same mistakes.

But we can't use "we're only human" as an excuse for repeatedly making the same mistakes. If we want to get better, in life, in business and everywhere we go, we have to be willing to learn. Some lessons are hard and bitter, others are not that difficult to learn.

But the key here is learning from mistakes. If we do, we move forward. If we don't, we don't just stay where we are - we fall into the trap of giving up control over who we are, what we do and how we choose to conduct our lives and affect people around us.

So the next time you make a mistake, know that you're human. Also know that you've just learnt something. And then decide what you're going to do about it - change the way you do things and look at life, or stay stuck where you are.

Make backups

The client whose hard disk had crashed learnt a hard lesson - they had to keep backups. And after that crash, they did - religiously.

And here's where experience kicks in: if you've ever had to restore your work from a backup, you know there's that moment when you wonder whether your backups are good. Are you actually going to be able to restore that work, get it all back?

So I helped the client not only set up a decent backup process - I also helped them test their backups to make sure they were good. Because I had learnt that lesson - the hard way.

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