For Your Best Learning: “Own” Your Errors!

If you are an educator in any field, you know the “excuse-makers”. How often do we hear “it was the wind”, “I didn’t get enough sleep”, or “the plane is acting funny” (et cetera ad nauseam)? But you probably also noticed the people who “own” their errors and admit to struggling, actually learn faster. Excuses provide an external “not me” pardon for failures while attempting to preserve our sense of self as competent and capable. But that is not who we are when we are learning; we are initially bad at most new tasks- by definition. It is essential to admit and learn from our mistakes.

And if we can be truly honest here, we all make excuses to some degree when we attempt something new. Excuse making seems to be a hard-wired human defense mechanism to save face and prevent appearing inept, stupid, or disappointing to others in social situations. What’s ironic is that struggle, exploration and incompetence are really the essence of all skill-based learning. If we are only practicing what we are good at (staying in our comfort zone) we are not learning at all! We need to understand and acknowledge this fact when we enter a learning situation and agree to actively embrace the struggle  with the positive mindset of improving (game on!) Savvy educators can help here by understanding and encouraging this embrace of challenges. Belittling or minimizing struggle will only impede student progress.

A smokescreen of excuses seldom really fools anyone else, but in many cases it confuses our own brain at a deeper level and impedes our learning.  It also “forgives failure” and detaches us from achieving our goals. “Personal dishonesty” slows our ability to efficiently code the correct behaviors into our brain as we are struggling and learning. At a deep level, learning physical activities requires coding a successful script or schema: “this action is right and works, this attempt was wrong and harmful“. With excuses we are hypnotizing ourselves with creative illusions.

My best personal defense against this human tendency in new learning situations is just to clearly state “I suck at this but I will get better!” (and a little humor seems to help too). I remember trying to hover a helicopter for the first time; I very clearly sucked (and it also was not “the wind”). The whole reason for skills education is embracing the suck (often uncomfortable) then living and working in the “struggle zone” with a positive attitude toward improvement. By definition, we start from a position of  helplessness and ineptitude and proceed incrementally to mastery. Shortening this path by “owning our errors” helps us achieve efficiency.  Honesty and compassion (both to yourself and from your educator) are vital tools for success. Humility is the path to mastery.

In the very worst situations, your chosen educator might be a co-conspirator in dishonesty and illusion. We have all met rated “pilots” who never (fill in the blank) filed a flight plan, used the rudder, or can’t land in a crosswind (or all of the above)? Whatever their deficiencies are, these pilots never acquired the skills and in many cases may be unaware of their deficiencies. Some flight schools and CFIs enable pilot illusions (so long as they get paid). This collusion convinces pilots they are safe and competent despite their clear lack of necessary skill, knowledge and judgment. Read these Yelp reviews of a recently shuttered flight school; clients loved him! A good training relationship has  to be based on honesty and trust but also reference to an objective performance standard (ACS/PTS). There might be some necessary “tough love” here also. Agreeing to struggle earnestly and be initially spastic is also helpful.

So at any level, if you want to accelerate your learning, gain efficiency and make the most of your training dollars, one of the best techniques is to actually “own” your errors and deficiencies.  Embrace brutal honesty and seek out your “struggle zone”. I agree this can be emotionally painful at first (but also funny if you approach it humbly). Seek out an understanding professional – a compassionate educator as your coach.

As you gain comfort with this personal honesty, both as an educator and as a student, you will notice a more rapid improvement in every learning situation. With honest appraisal, we are now accurately “coding” the correct performance parameters into the brain more rapidly for reinforcement and myelination. See Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code” for more on this fascinating process (it’s a “broadband connection” for your neurons).  The way we learn is deep practice just out of our comfort zone, struggling a bit but not so far out that we are flailing. Savvy educators succeed by finding this “sweet spot” of optimal challenge for their students. Being honest with ourselves and “owning our errors” is also essential!

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

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