How to learn from your bad decisions

 By Somali K Chakrabarti



Learning from your decisions

Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.

If you can improve your decisions by observing the bad decisions made by others, you are gifted beyond doubt!

However, the fact remains that out of all the decisions that we make at each and every stage of our life and in our career, only some are good choices. We are all likely to make bad decisions at some point or the other.

Well, it is more definitely more comforting to know that you can put your bad decisions to good use by learning from them. Enhancing your ability to make better decisions should go a long way in improving your personal life as well as your efficiency and productivity at work.

Let’s have a go at how to learn from the bad choices that you may have made in the past.

The first step towards learning from your past decisions is to realize 

Not all your bad decisions are mistakes.


Differentiating between a bad decision and a mistake


At times, you are faced with situations where you do not have a clue what the best choice might be. You may have to respond very quickly and may not have enough time to gather information. In such situations, you bank on your intuitions to arrive at conclusions and take the necessary actions.

decision dice

But then, intuitions are also hardwired with cognitive biases, which substantially influence your thinking. While the use of intuitions certainly helps you to make your choices quickly and rather implicitly, it can at times, lead to errors in your decisions.

Alternately, there would be situations where you would have made the wrong choice in spite of knowing that it is not really the right thing to do, but you took the risk believing that you will get away with it.

Generally we tend to think that intent separates a bad decision from a mistake. However the distinction between the mistakes and bad decisions is not always so clear, nor is it so simple to arrive at. At times we choose A over B for reasons that we often don’t understand. Our intuitions, cultural biases, emotions and other contextual factors creep into our thinking and affect the way in which we gather and process information to make decisions.

What is ‘right’ for the one who makes the decision may not always be ‘right’ for those who are impacted by the decision. Here again, the distinction between bad decision and mistake gets blurred.

Looking at your decision objectively and understanding its impact on others is a step towards improving your decisions.


Owing up a bad decision


We often see that people, when they are criticized for their decisions, try to pass off their bad decisions as judgment errors or mistakes. This is made easier by the fuzzy area that prevents a clear distinction of a bad decision and a mistake.

Also while it is relatively easier to admit a mistake, it is much harder to accept that you have consciously made a bad choice and deliberately acted in a way that was likely to produce a bad outcome.

When a bad decision is re-labelled as a mistake, it no longer appears to be something that is done entirely on purpose. Thereby it reduces the extent to which others perceive the involvement and contribution of the person behind the error; so the person is more likely to be forgiven and the action is more likely to be forgotten.

The caveat here is that by not owning up your decisions or by passing the blame on others, you deprive yourself of the chance to learn from your mistakes.



Learning from mistakes and bad choices


Both mistakes and bad choices provide the opportunity to learn and grow from them. The best way to look at mistakes is to use them as stepping stones to move forward towards your goals.

Owning up your decisions is the first step towards improved decisions. You can learn from our mistakes only when you admit the mistake and own up the mistake instead of trying to justify your action. Analyzing your mistake by recognizing the situation under which you made the mistake and identifying the wrong action on your part, will help to avoid repeating the mistake.

Furthermore, though presence of cognitive biases hugely impact decision making, yet most people are generally not aware of them, nor do they like to believe that they are susceptible to implicit biases during decision-making. Recognizing that the biases exist can help you to consciously put some plans and processes in place to address those biases and balance your intuitions with rationality.

To avoid repeating the same mistake over and over again, you would need to work towards:

  • Owning up your decisions
  • Analyzing your mistakes
  • Recognizing the situation if it arises again and remembering the mistake you made
  • Honing up your intuitive skills and yet being aware of your biases
  • Being aware of likely outcome of your action
  • Changing your mistake behaviour

Lastly when perceptions about the correctness or righteousness of a significant decision vary, then it becomes very necessary to assess the impact of the decision of different people, gain buy in of the people who are impacted by the decision, set ground rules and work towards a goal or desirable consequences while acting in appropriate manner to avoid undesirable consequences.

Better awareness will not necessarily guarantee better decisions, but they can make them more likely.


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Why we behave–and decide–the way we do, Bain Brief, 2013


2 thoughts on “How to learn from your bad decisions

  1. Very nice, systematic thoughts .. Enjoy reading these blogs.. Somehow you have tempted me again to write my silly theory on “why indians are so bad on decision making” which was asked by a Finn customer over a beer. Will tag you when I write .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your comment. Please share your post when you come up with it. I have been wanting to write about how interacting with people from different countries with different cultural background opens up your perspective. Your reference to the question by Finn customer reiterates the idea in my mind. Maybe I’ll write on this. Thanks again,


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