Ellie Strejlau

“Learn from My Mistakes”

An observation about learning from others' mistakes and how it relates to the effects of stressful or traumatic experiences.
782 words — Approx. 4 minutes
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

It took me a long time to come to terms with this piece of advice. It’s one that my parents reiterated early and often to my sisters and me growing up. I resented it; I thought it meant “don’t explore and learn on your own; stay in your comfort zone. You don’t need to experience things to grow.” Through my own reflection and growing up, it’s come to mean, “I’ve seen it before, and I don’t want it to happen to you too.” Meaning that this is a phrase that a person can begin saying out of seniority, wisdom, and experience to someone they care for. They want you to see the actions they took, and if it applies to a situation you find yourself in, remember what didn’t work for them.

Research suggests that making mistakes and encountering stressors and traumas can make a person weaker. This isn’t a new concept either, Americans are just really into hustle culture and making gritty and broken seem cool and something that people should want.

Now, it is true that, in an evolutionary sense, those who survive a calamity are by definition the fittest. But it is not the calamity that made them so. For our minds, however, the leap is short between seeing the strong emerge from a calamity and concluding that they are strong because of the calamity. — Noam Shpancer Ph.D., What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker

Perhaps we as a society need to start thinking about these traumas, stressors, and grief that result from calamities as something more tangible that we know does harm to our bodies, like drinking alcohol, doing drugs, or smoking cigarettes. Because if left untreated, stress can also cause your immune system to be less effective resulting in more frequent and dangerous physical illness.

I’m about as old now as my parents were when I remember them starting to say “learn from my mistakes” to us. I don’t believe I can put myself into the wise category just yet. However, having been working in my current industry for 14 years I can probably put myself into some level of seniority. One example of my learning from their mistakes is that I’m finally starting to spend more time on myself and activities that bring me joy. I can no longer consider coding to be a hobby. I’ve essentially stopped writing code outside of work entirely simply because I already do it all day long and it doesn’t bring me nearly as much joy as it used to. We don’t need to spend every minute of every day being productive. Instead of spending my free time coding, I’ve been playing video games, cooking, baking, exercising, or even just sleeping. All of these are self care activities that are good for us in multiple different ways.

Tender love and care toughen you up, because they nurture and strengthen your capacity to learn and adapt—including learning how to fight, and adapting to later hardship. — Noam Shpancer Ph.D., What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker

I didn’t see it as a kid or even a young adult, but saying “learn from my mistakes” was an act of love. While it’s okay to have made mistakes, we shouldn’t seek them out.

One of my former colleagues, Erik Summerfield, made an important point that I might have missed if I hadn’t shared this entry with him while it was in progress: “[…] all of our lives are not the same. It is one thing to add others’ experiences to your database, but that does not mean that you might not ‘make the same mistake’. Like all feedback, it is up to us to rate its relevance and do with it what we will.” I totally agree. Not all situations are the same, and times change. File away the mistake being taught to you as something to remember if you’re ever in a similar situation and consider it when you have to make a decision. It’s the same reason why we have postmortem meetings. We discuss what went right so we can have success on other teams and what went wrong so we don’t repeat failures. They’re also often documented and shared to prevent other teams from making similar mistakes.

Still, one major mistake I made in life was disregarding the original advice of “learn from my mistakes”. So maybe don’t fight back out of spite when someone says it. They are probably trying to protect you, not keep you from experiencing things. Conversely, I’d be wary of someone who says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. (Sorry, Kelly Clarkson.) And perhaps we should retire that saying for good.

© 2021 Ellie Strejlau. All rights reserved, except disclaimers (below) and quotes (cited).

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