It is widely recognised that there is much learning to be gained from reviewing our mistakes, looking at what went wrong and how and why it did. However, what is often given far less attention than it deserves is the immense learning to be gained from what goes right. If we are being successful in most of what we are doing, then we can learn a great deal from asking ourselves what it is that we are doing that is so effective. This can then give us the opportunity to look at how we do it even better, to build on our strong points, rather than just build up our not so strong points.
Mistakes are quite rightly seen as a good source of learning, but focusing too narrowly on the negatives of a situation or our response to it can put what went well out of focus, hidden in the shadows. For example, in a fraught situation involving conflict, the anxiety I feel in such tense circumstances may lead me to say something unwise and ill-considered that unwittingly inflames the conflict, thereby creating the possibility that the person I spoke to may become aggressive or even violent. Making sure that I do not make such unwise comments in future would be a good example of the important learning to be drawn out from getting things wrong. But it can also mask the fact that the person concerned did not become aggressive or violent because I was very skilful in handling the situation, very effective in defusing the additional tension that I unintentionally caused through my unwise comment. Feeling bad about getting something wrong can easily dominate our thoughts and thereby filter out what went well and how our own contributions to that figured so significantly.
This can often be linked to self-esteem too. Someone with low self-esteem is likely to be prone to focus on the negatives, on what they did not do as well as they could, while paying little or no attention to the positives of the situation and what was done well. Equally, some people with high self-esteem may be reluctant to focus on their mistakes, as that creates a conflict with the positive image they have of themselves. It need not be like this, of course – it is perfectly possible to have high self-esteem and still recognise that you are not perfect and will get things wrong from time to time. It is about balance, and at times our own self-esteem issues can knock that balance out of kilter.
This process of learning from what we do well is part of reflective practice, the ‘reflective conversation with the situation’ that Schön wrote about: asking ourselves what is happening, why it is happening and how we can steer things in a positive direction. Through reflective practice we can look at what works and learn about what other situations we might be able to apply that success to. For example, we may realise that what works well with adults won’t work with children or vice versa. But we may also learn that by adapting what works with one group, we can extend it to other groups. Success can then breed further success over time,
It is also important to recognise that sometimes things go well, despite our part in the situation, and so we might be wasting time and energy by focusing our efforts on things that will work out well anyway. Increased awareness of not only what works, but also why it works can therefore be very helpful, so that we can be clear about what our own contribution has been and how we can build on that in future.