Using mistakes and failure to your advantage


So knowing that everyone, including your mentee, makes mistakes - and that mindset governs how we react to mistakes - how can mentors help youth turn mistakes into a positive? How can a mentor reinforce the idea that failing at something is actually the key to learning? This video explores strategies for reframing mistakes and embracing challenges. Some examples include:

  • Reframe the mistake as a chance to learn and grow,
  • Analyze mistakes together,
  • Honor what they did right, and
  • Share your own experiences making and learning from mistakes.

How does a mentor teach a child to stop worrying about, and even embrace, making mistakes? Well, the first step is to stop treating mistakes or failures as wholly negative experiences. Getting a problem on a test wrong, or picking the wrong solution to a personal problem, should be talked about as an opportunity to learn and grow, not as a reflection of innate ability or inherent worth. If mistakes are valuable opportunities for growth, then we should talk about mistakes as if they are exciting, and a natural part of the human experience. So pay close attention to how you talk about mistakes or things that didn’t turn out as planned. Are you placing blame? Are you expressing anger or frustration? These types of reactions are bound to make your mentee withdraw from future challenges and stay stuck on the failure, rather than growing from the experience. Remember: brain growth happens from mistakes, not in spite of them.

There are other things you can do to help your mentee be more comfortable with, learn from, and even be excited by, their mistakes:

  • Analyze mistakes together: If you are working with your mentee on a homework assignment or studying for a test, take some time to talk through the mistakes they are making. Discuss what led to the mistake and what possible solutions they can employ to avoid it in the future. Not only does this re-emphasize that mistakes are an essential part of learning, but it can also help reinforce problem solving strategies and perseverance. Let your mentee know that the process of learning how to get to the right answer is as important as simply getting that right answer.
  • Honor what they did right, even in mistakes: Even within failures or mistakes, there are often many elements that went right. So while it’s important to analyze mistakes, be sure to also give praise for what they got right. This helps put mistakes in proper perspective and offers clarity around where they need to focus their energies to improve. Mistakes are an important part of the process!
  • Talk about the feelings associated with mistakes: Sometimes students may be frustrated and disappointed when they’ve made mistakes, but that’s OK. Processing those feelings can be a great way of getting past them and onto the more important work of figuring out strategies that can be more successful in the future.
  • Push your mentee to take on bigger challenges when they are ready: As noted earlier, the best learning doesn’t happen when a student is repeating something they've already mastered. The learning happens on the edges, when they are pushed into more challenging problems. This doesn’t mean that you ask them to take on things that are wildly beyond their current abilities, but it is important to challenge them, to make them stretch, to embrace the work of trying something new. And remember that this goes beyond just school work, too. We only get better at relationships, hobbies, sports, and other domains of life when we go beyond what we have already mastered.
  • Share your own failures and mistakes: Self-disclosure is one of the most important tools in the mentor toolbox. It allows youth to see their mentors in a realistic light and provides an opportunity for modeling appropriate behaviors, attitudes, and approaches. That certainly applies to how we talk about mistakes. Tell your mentee about times where you failed at something or kept making a mistake. Talk about how you felt and how you overcame that mistake. Share how you analyzed the problem, tried different solutions, and ultimately persevered.
  • Encourage them to ask for help when they get stuck: Encourage your mentee to ask for help when they need it. Teachers, friends, parents, and you, the mentor, are all sources of support in learning from mistakes or overcoming a failure. Just like it’s important to make mistakes, it’s also important to ask for help. Teaching your mentee to ask for advice and support is a gift that will last far beyond just your mentoring relationship.
  • Be proactive: You don’t have to sit around waiting for your mentee to fail at something in order to start working on their mindset around challenges, failures, and mistakes. You can initiate conversations about mistakes at any point in your relationship. Ask your mentee about how they think about mistakes using questions such as:
    • How do you feel when you make a mistake?
    • How do you think other people see you when you make a mistake?
    • Have you ever discovered something new from making a mistake?
    • Has a mistake ever made you think more deeply about a problem? (You can start by talking about a non-academic setting, and then talk about how the lessons apply to academics.)
  • And finally... Be patient: Recognize that it may take some time for your mentee to get comfortable talking about mistakes or to apply more of a growth mindset to how they think about failures. And even if they have a great mindset and are excited to learn from the mistake, it may take them some time to master the task or skill they are struggling with. This can be especially true of youth who have a learning disability that makes it difficult for them to consistently apply strategies or solutions to challenges. So be sure to meet your mentee “where they are” and remember that an emphasis on learning and problem solving is more important than being right every time.
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