Branweb Blog

Learning from Past Mistakes

Learning from past mistakes is harder than we think. In part this is because we fail to generalize our mistakes enough to see a connection between our past and present behavior.

For example, I wish I would have socialized more in college. If I could talk to my college-aged self, I would say: “Be more willing to talk to strangers. Seek out people who share your interests.” And yet I’m hardly more social now than I was then. I don’t socialize with my coworkers. If someone pointed that out to me, I woud say: “That’s completely different. My coworkers are boring!”. But I would have probably said something similar when I was in college about my classmates.

The deeper issue is that I didn’t give people a fair chance in college and I don’t give them a fair chance now. In order to realize this, I have to somehow see the connection between my past behavior and my current behavior.

Here is a useful thought-experiment for seeing these connections: imagine you are talking to yourself from 10 years ago (or 5 years ago if you are young). What were you doing then? What advice would you give to your past self? Reflect on that advice and ask yourself: how does what I did diverge from what I wished I would have done? And am I in a similar situation now? Will my future self 10 years from now be giving the same advice?

I did this exercise and one of my pieces of advice was: “Learn to be more patient and flexible. You are way too rigid. If things don’t go according to your plan, you lose it. Learn about CBT and zen meditation. Join a meditation group.” Good advice. But on reflection I realized that I currently don’t meditate. Why did I stop if I once found it so helpful? Maybe I have a good reason, and maybe I don’t. But the question would never had occurred to me if I had not performed this thought experiment, and asking such questions is the key to learning from the past.