What is the difference between a mistake and a learning experience?


When we see mistakes as learning experiences, regret transforms from a painful emotion into a motivating one. As children, we frequently made mistakes and learned from them. Learning to crawl and walk was trial and error, and every error was a lesson about the world and ourselves. As adults, though, we’ve forgotten how to fail. Failure terrifies us. To regain the joy and usefulness of making mistakes, we need to look back on our biggest ones and see how they shaped us.

Take heartbreak, for example. I am a marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica, and I see both couples and individuals. I’ve yet to meet one person who has never had their heart broken at least once. So why do some people come out of an ended relationship stronger and some emerge bitter and resentful? In my experience, it’s twofold: 1) how you see yourself and others, and 2) what you do next.

To turn regrets into lessons, you need to start by practicing forgiveness.

You can’t let go of regrets when you’re tied to them like a ship to an anchor; they’ll just keep pulling you down. Practicing forgiveness means forgiving both yourself and any other parties involved. The key to forgiveness is seeing the humanity in each of us. Human beings are flawed. We make mistakes not because we are evil, terrible, unworthy people, but because we are human.

The second step is to identify the lessons of your experiences and use those lessons to make better decisions going forward. What is it, precisely, that you feel regretful about? Do you regret your choice of partner, or something specific that you did while with them? Do you regret taking a job you now hate, or not taking a job you think you would have loved?

If you regret not doing something, explore ways you may do it now. Even if that one job is gone, for example, there may be others you can apply for. Rather than ruminate for the rest of your life about the career that got away while working a job you hate, turn that angry energy into motivation to search for a job you could love.

If you always wanted to be a journalist, but took the safe route and became an accountant, it’s never too late to try a new career. Or, if that’s too big a change or financially impossible, start a community or family newsletter. If you’re of retirement age, seize the opportunity to correct past mistakes and volunteer to write a column for a local newspaper or start a blog.

If you regret doing something, make amends. If you hurt someone, call them or write them a letter. If they have passed away or you don’t know how to contact them, do something in their honor like donate to a charity they cared about or volunteer.

Moving, doing, and acting are all great ways to combat the bitterness, resentment, and anger that comes with regret.