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Learning without mistakes.

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

"Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others." - Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898)

Otto von Bismarck (dubbed 'The Iron Chancellor') has been praised by many historians as a visionary who was instrumental in uniting Germany and keeping the peace in Europe during his time. While he was considered by the crowd to be a little "gruff" and "militaristic", in contrast he was found by historians to be quite diplomatic. With that said, I'm sure he had good intentions when he said, "Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others" - but, I'm just going to come right out here and say, that it does sound a tad brash. I can't help but imagine, that when he spoke those famous words, he was probably standing in a room of men with his chest puffed out and fingers twirling the ends of his bushy moustache. Ok, now I'm just being mean, this guy obviously did a lot of great things... it's just that this one particular thing he said irks me.

Why does it bother me so? I think it is because I personally would not call a person who DID learn from their own mistakes a fool - I mean, at least they didn't repeat the same mistake again and again, yeah? And, learning something from making a mistake is way better than repeating self destructive behaviour till the cows come home...right?

RIGHT. Yes, I am speaking from a plethora of personal repetitive mistake making experience here... like the time in my uni years when I was so drunk I taxied back to a guys house after he told me to leave.... not once, but three times. Ugh. Yup. Face palm moment. Old Nicola was a winner when it came to repeated mistakes - the primary mistake in this instance was alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism for unhealed trauma. New Nicola does not recommend that tactic whatsoever. In my humble opinion, the only place you go repeating mistakes like that is right the way down the lane of shame. And, from my experience, the lane of shame is a dead end. A place that goes right the way to nowhere. Trust. Me.

Anyway, getting back to my point - all in all, we are clearly NOT fools if we do actually learn from our own mistakes. In other words, we generally get ahead in life if we realise the direction we were going in did not serve us and we do something different the next time.

However... learning from our own mistakes - while far superior to making the same mistake repetitively - does come with its own drawbacks, and maybe that's what Otto really meant. Gaining wisdom from our faux pas could be likened to writing our very own tragic poetry: simultaneously awful and beautiful. To learn from a mistake we must first experience the pain of making one, just as if we wished to write an exceptional tragic poem - I'm talking about the kind of verses that would bring even the most stoic human to tears. To create that special kind of angsty magic for a reader, most poets probably have to access a memory of a time they had endured something so soul crushing and messy that when they think of the only way to deal with that kind of agony is to bleed it out onto the paper before them. The poet then has to go through the mess and see how to put structure back into the bleeding heartache on the page before them and make some sense of it all. Hopefully resulting in a beautiful - albeit woeful - masterpiece... in the end at least. What I am saying is, that the process of writing the tragic poem is painful - even if the eventual outcome of a finished piece is good, there is definitely a cost associated with creating it - just like there is cost and pain when we make a mistake in our own lives. And naturally the cost and pain level rises with the size of the mistake made.

Let me be really clear here though, I'm not admonishing making mistakes. Making mistakes is a perfectly acceptable way to gain knowledge from interacting with the world around us. When mistakes are experienced, lessons are learned and beauty can come from what we do with the lesson. But, making mistakes certainly can be an uncomfortable way to learn at times. Especially when it comes to learning some of life's hardest lessons.

So what if I told you there was a cheats way to learn from mistakes without even making any? No pain required for this option peeps.

The pain adverse out there are listening now, aren't ya?

Mmmhhhmmmm. Most people say this way to learn hard life lessons is interesting... and maybe even a bit of fun. So what, prey tell, is this delightful way for us all to learn, you might ask, why please, let me show you.... Actually, my quote from Otto already did (you just got carried away with thinking about my drunken taxi episodes didn't you?). It's OK I'll recap the end of Otto's quote for you here: "The wise man learns from the mistakes of others."

Ahhhhh... there is the part of the quote I love.

Many men before Otto have said this, and probably just as many after. On this part, of Otto's quote I one hundred percent agree. The easier less torturous way to learn many of life's lessons is, of course, from understanding the mistakes and lessons of others. But how do we do that? We can observe others, sure. We can listen to others, of course. Or, we can read. Mmmhhmmmm. Now I've got you bookworms out there excited, haven't I?

Understanding the experiences of others rarely ever has a negative effect on our lives, in fact it predominately has a positive one. And what's more, gaining knowledge through the journeys others have had on this earth is also pretty fun - much easier than writing tragic poetry, say. All you have to do is sit down, open a book, and soak up all the lush wisdom that has now in the form of little black curly squiggles on a page. During the (now past) summer holiday weeks - in the precious moments between feeding my forever-hungry-just-because-it's-holidays-three-kids - I have been filling my cup with some great reads. So many wonderful moments in books, and many, many, great lessons to be devoured. Reading these holidays felt like being invited in the living room and being given the intimate opportunity to view slides of the most impactful learnings from each authors life - and the lives of others they mentioned. It was pretty special. It sure is nice to know that we are not alone in navigating this crazy thing called life. Millions of people have walked this very earth we stand on in times before ours, and they have all gathered so much knowledge along the way. From the findings and teachings of those that have come before us that we can strive to achieve our own betterment. From the teachings of others, we can go on to create a life filled with wisdom for ourselves, compassion and empathy for others, and a better world for the future generations. Sure, we will still make - and hopefully learn from - our own mistakes, but this is a great way to live our lives from a more informed perspective. Let us all be the wise men Otto spoke of, let us fill our heads with the mistakes of others so we can make less mistakes and better choices ourselves.

With that said... What book - or audiobook, for all those multitasking listening junkies out there - are you being called to devour next?

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