Your step-by-step guide to learning from failure

Imagine other scenarios

You've been told time and again to learn from your failures.

And to teach your students to do the same

But how exactly does that work?

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Neal J. Roese proposes a five-step process for turning a mistake into a positive learning opportunity.

The method Roese describes is rooted in counterfactual thinking, which involves imagining alternatives as they relate to a past situation.

Here's how:

1. Think of a better outcome

Roese calls this outcome an "upward counterfactual"—and to conceive of it, you must imagine yourself taking a different path prior to your failed scenario, which would have led to a better outcome.

For this step, Roese stresses the importance of focusing on your own actions and what you could have done differently, rather than any other players in the scenario.

2. Think of a second better outcome

Roese emphasizes that it's important to repeat the first step twice, so that you don't end up fixating on the first upward counterfactual.

When you only imagine one better outcome, Roese says, you can fall into the "hindsight bias" trap and begin to convince yourself that you were aware of the alternative outcome the entire time.

"Imagining a second path to a better outcome helps you to avoid attributing your failure to a simplistic, pat reason," Roese says. 

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3. Think of a different path to the same outcome

Roese calls this step "semifactual thinking." First, think of something you might have done prior to your moment of failure that wouldn't have changed the outcome.

Then, ask yourself why that course of action wouldn't have changed the outcome.

"The purpose of this step in the failure and recovery process is to reveal obstacles you might not have noticed or articulated," Roese says. In the future, you can determine the best ways to overcome these obstacles.

4. Think of a different outcome that might have resulted from the actions you took

This step is vital, Roese says, since it requires you to establish a "healthy respect for outside forces." No matter what you did to cause your failure, there's always the possibility that the other people involved may have acted differently.

When you think of how your same course of actions may have resulted in a different outcome—be it for better or for worse—you force yourself to see how the random forces of nature can play into an outcome. 

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5. Think of a worse outcome you dodged

Roese calls this "downward counterfactual"—that is, the opposite of your first two steps—a "feel-good tactic." When you think of something you might have done differently that would have led to an even worse outcome, you can congratulate yourself for avoiding it.

But more important than this step's "feel-good" result is its ability to, as Roese says, "broaden your understanding of what just happened."

Throughout the course of this five-step process, Roese warns you to avoid blame and bias. Counterfactual thinking without blame will allow you to "see an enlarged, nuanced picture of the failure," and allow you to move forward and act differently the next time you're in a similar situation.

"You may not follow your imagined scenarios precisely," says Roese, "but you've learned to stretch your mind to incorporate new possible tactics" (Roese, Harvard Business Review, 12/9). 

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