Everybody (or almost everybody) says that mistakes are life’s best teachers; there is a mantra in startup circles that goes along the lines of “fail early, fail often, fail better”. There are others, e.g., the folks at Basecamp (J. Friedl and D. Heinemeier Hansson) who in their book “Rework – Change the way you work forever“ say that learning from mistakes is overrated for at least two reasons. Number one, other people mistakes are not your mistakes and number two because learning from mistakes tells you what not to do rather than what you should do.
I think there is great value in learning. full stop. Whether you learn from your (or others) past successes or failures, the important thing is to learn to learn.
When grant hackers try to draw lessons from previous incidents or situations, e.g. a successful grant application or a failed grant interview, or when you ask them about it, they will usually engage in a descriptive account of what happened, i.e., they will describe the failed interview as a set of episodes where certain things did or did not go as expected and this account will usually be non-developmental, detached of context and insight. It will, in essence, be a list with the dirty laundry.
Instead, one should try and engage in a reflective analysis. A reflective analysis is one in which:
(1) the grant hacker focuses on both the details of what went on as well as the big picture. These are the two arms of the “wisdom balance”. If the grant hacker focuses only on the details, the wisdom balance will tilt to one side and they will miss what matters most (the big picture and its context); if -on the other hand- the grant hacker looks only at the big picture, the wisdom balance will tilt in the other direction and they will be bound to repeat the mistakes that lead to this situation in the first place or fail to identify design patterns for what does work well. Will Gompertz says in his book “Think like an artist”: “artists think big picture and fine detail” and this applies to reflective learning too.
(2) the grant hacker tries to identify repeating patterns of similar (if not necessarily identical) situations and creates an insightful analysis for the pattern that emerges. In this way, the next time they face a similar situation, they will be primed to recognise it and more able to respond to the situation in a different way than what they originally did (if it was a failure) or to apply an effective design pattern if the lessons came from success. That is, by identifying repeating patterns of behaviour and response to similar situations the grant hacker can ensure that the wisdom balance remains even and steady.
(3) for truly reflective learning, especially when trying to learn from mistakes or failures, it is essential that the grant hacker focuses on their role in the situation or pattern (i.e. earn it!) rather than on hypothesised motivations of the other protagonists in their stories. What other people’s motivations are, one can never truly know but our roles and behaviours are under our direct purview.
In a nutshell, if you want to learn better and faster, make a deliberate effort -and have the courage- to engage in reflective learning.