The importance of reframing mistakes

It turns out that making, paying attention to, and correcting our mistakes is actually one of the very best ways our brains learn.

But for young people like your mentee, mistakes can seem catastrophic. Misspelling a word, getting a problem wrong on a test, making an error in a game… all of these can be deeply troubling to a child, especially one who already might feel like they’ll just never get better at the things they are struggling with. Mistakes and failures in these situations can feel embarrassing, frustrating, and intimidating, especially if they are worried about a negative response from parents, teachers, and peers. And while these emotions may be understandable, they can have negative consequences for learners’ development.

Youth with a fixed mindset may respond to mistakes or failures by avoiding challenging work or may not try their best because they believe that their failure is a sign that they just aren't smart, so “what's the point?” These students shy away from challenges and often avoid doing the hard work in school and life. Because they’d rather not try than try and fail, they often don’t address the biggest hurdles, and as a result, don’t partake in their potential biggest successes and personal growth.

As a mentor, you can play a critical role in helping youth avoid this mental trap. One of the best gifts you can give your mentee is a fresh perspective about mistakes and failures in life. In fact, you can teach them that mistakes are actually essential to learning, that no one gets better at anything without first making some mistakes and going through some struggles.

Your job as a mentor is to make sure that your mentee thinks of being challenged as the new “normal.” We often praise kids for doing something exceedingly well, such as breezing through a bunch of easy math problems. But getting a lot of easy answers correct inherently means that the student hasn’t been learning. They’ve just been applying what they already know in a zone of comfort. The real learning and growth happens when things get hard. Help your mentee understand that they should relish the times when they are challenge: that’s when they are learning the most.

So when your mentee makes a mistake or fails at something, keep two key points in mind:

  1. Mistakes are inevitable if you’re doing something worthwhile. You could avoid mistakes if you just never tried anything hard. Even world-class performers made mistakes when they were learning, and still make mistakes today. For this reason, mistakes don't mean that you are inherently bad or different.
  2. Mistakes are not just inevitable side-effects, they are actually clues for learning. Great performers study their mistakes to figure out where they went wrong. Michael Jordan once lost a game-winning jump shot, so he spent hours that same evening practicing jump shots. A mistake is a gift of feedback - rather than just getting a bad grade, you can take it as feedback about what you need to fix to get a better grade.

The video in the next lesson illustrates exactly how mentors can apply these lessons and help change the thinking about mistakes.

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