Enabling learning from mistakes

During a recent training, in which we covered the topic of mindset, a participant came up to me afterwards. He said: “You just talked about 'learning from mistakes' but can we really learn from mistakes?”. He referred to a book that stated that it is difficult to learn from mistakes (that was this book). Coincidentally, a new article has just been published by the same author, Ayelet Fishbach, together with Ryan Carlson. In this article, the authors explore the psychology behind failure and learning from it. The article offers interesting insights for anyone interested in personal development, education, or management. Below I will discuss the main themes of the article.

Understanding the importance of failure

Carlson and Fishbach approach failure not as a negative outcome to be avoided, but as an inevitable aspect of the learning process that is essential for growth. They argue that failure provides valuable lessons that can contribute to future success.

Emotional and cognitive barriers during goal setting and pursuit

The researchers divide the process of goal pursuit into two phases: objective and goal pursuit, each with its own unique challenges:


  • Cognitive Barrier: People may think that failure is useless, which discourages them from setting goals in the first place.
  • Emotional Barrier: The fear of failure can be so overwhelming that one avoids taking on new challenges.

Goal Pursuit:

  • Cognitive Barrier: The belief that failure does not provide valuable feedback can hinder progress.
  • Emotional Barrier: The immediate emotional pain of failure can lead to discouragement and giving up.

Intervention strategies

Carlson and Fishbach propose several interventions aimed at changing the perception of failure and promoting learning from failure. These are visually summarized in the figure below in their article:

1) Interventions aimed at setting goals

For the purpose of goal setting, the authors recommend the following interventions aimed at changing the meaning of failure:

  1. Harness Goal Dynamics: This means that people should view their failure as an indication of their lack of progress rather than a lack of commitment.
  2. Change mindset: this means that you evoke and stimulate a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.
  3. Self-distance: This means mentally removing yourself from a situation to gain a more objective perspective. You can do this by talking to yourself in the third person instead of the first person. This can help minimize the emotional impact of failure and set challenging goals.
  4. Utilize Vicarious learning: this means learning by observing the experiences of others. This can be emotionally easier to learn from failure because the threat to your own ego is removed. When people see others fail, they learn as well as when they see others succeed. Encouraging conversations about failure and highlighting others' mistakes can promote vicarious learning.

2) Interventions aimed at pursuing goals

In support of goal pursuit, the authors recommend the following interventions aimed at encouraging learning from mistakes:

  1. Harnessing intrinsic motivation: Intrinsic motivation means that you see an activity as a goal in itself because you find it fun or interesting. Challenging activities can be intrinsically motivating if you set the goal to learn from failure. This can help you set challenging goals and respond more positively to failure.
  2. Giving advice: This means that people who have not achieved their goals give advice to others instead of asking for advice themselves. Asking for advice can be counterproductive because it has a stigma and can undermine the sense of competence. In contrast, giving advice offers benefits such as increased self-confidence and the formation of specific intentions, which increase the advisor's motivation and performance.
  3. Change counterfactuals: This means that after a failure, people think about what could have happened differently. This can help them understand how they were able to succeed and develop behavioral intentions to perform better in the future. Coming up with counterthoughts also encourages learning from failure and setbacks by focusing attention on the causes of failure.
  4. Changing culture: This means addressing the broader environment in which people pursue their goals to create a culture that encourages discussion and learning from failure. This can be done by promoting psychological safety so that people feel safe to admit mistakes and share experiences. By creating a culture that encourages learning from failure, people can not only better appreciate what they can learn from failure, but also feel empowered to share that information with others. (Also read: Cultures of growth: the many benefits of growth mindset cultures).

These strategies are designed to help individuals break through the emotional and cognitive barriers that would otherwise prevent them from learning from their mistakes.


Carlson and Fishbach's article offers an important shift in the way we approach success and failure. By creating an environment that recognizes failure as an essential part of the learning process, we can become more resilient and adaptive. This provides a valuable guide for anyone interested in fostering a culture that values ​​learning from failure as a path to success and innovation.