John C. Maxwell: How to Make the Most of Your Mistakes

UPDATED: December 10, 2019
PUBLISHED: March 9, 2016

“Don’t dwell on the past.”

How many of us have heard that recommendation—especially after something bad has happened to us? Many times we would be wise to follow it, shifting our focus to present and future goals. After all, an unhealthy obsession with past failures can paralyze us.

But like any good advice, it shouldn’t be taken to extremes. I’m a huge believer in moving forward, but I equally recognize the huge value of spending a short amount of time reflecting on past errors in a productive way. Why? Because it’s the only way to learn from them.

Related: Why Failure Is Good for Success

I’m not talking about throwing a pity party for your poor self. I’m talking about examining failure with an eye toward future success. I call that reflective thinking, and it’s a discipline that I practice regularly. It is thinking with the purpose of growing.

Reflective thinking allows me to process the events in my life and improve myself afterward. By examining what worked and what didn’t, I’m able to mine the best takeaways from my successes and failures, and use the knowledge to push myself forward. Because I am always trying to get better, I’ve found reflective thinking to be a vital part of my growth process.

Here’s my five-step reflective thinking technique:

1. Review.

Look back on the events of your past. I do that annually, monthly, weekly and, to some degree, daily. At the end of every year, I set aside an entire week to review the previous 12 months. Every month I look at successes and failures of the previous 30 days. And at the end of every day, I ask myself key questions about how I did in the previous 24 hours. I list the things that I accomplished, where my time was spent and any mistakes I made.

You can’t know what to do tomorrow until you know what you messed up today. As you review, ask yourself, Where did I come up short? Where did I come up strong? Make a list of everything that stands out. Celebrate the wins and make note of the losses. Then move on to the next step.


“If you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.”


2. Reflect.

I actually have a thinking chair in my office—that’s how important this step is to me. I use it only for contemplating. At this point, I examine every item on my list in more detail, with a single goal: to learn from each experience.

Here are some questions to ask yourself: What plans worked? What decisions yielded good results? What decisions ended up being wrong? If I were to approach the situation again, knowing what I know now, what would I do differently? Why?

The biggest mistakes often yield the biggest lessons, so think deeply to prevent your tomorrows from falling into the same traps as your yesterdays.

Related: 10 Things Successful People Never Do Again

3. Recover.

When things don’t turn out as planned, you may need time to recover. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. In fact, I love the statement, “If you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.” Some of my business decisions weren’t successful and cost me a lot of money. I’ve taken risks that didn’t pan out. And I’ve made mistakes in my relationships with people that needed to be resolved.

Recovery time brings closure. Letting yourself feel bad for a short time can motivate you to fix what can be fixed. And it frees you to move forward. Just remember, with every look at the past, always keep an eye toward the future. This will help you recover effectively, without wallowing in regret.

4. Rearrange.

Reflective thinking often provides clarity about priorities. Examining what went wrong may reveal where you lost sight of what was really important. Many times your priorities need to be realigned with your mission. Sometimes your priorities need to shift. Reflection allows you to hit the pause button and make sure you are still on track. Don’t keep pushing forward in a direction you shouldn’t be going!

5. Recharge.

Dwelling on the past with an eye toward the future allows you to rebound. It often reveals the humor in situations. Go ahead and laugh. It’ll renew your energy. Reflecting also brings humility when you step back and see where others have helped you along the way. And discovering the steps you can take to avoid repeating mistakes will invigorate you.

Reflection can also be a time of excitement and creativity. It’s a great chance to brainstorm about future opportunities and look for ways to put new plans into action. It can be a time of fulfillment.

I believe reflective thinking is crucial to unlocking the door to growth. It expands your thinking and inspires you to continue improving. It keeps you progressing as an individual and as a leader. It virtually guarantees your future will be better than your past.

So go ahead: Reflect on your mistakes just long enough to let them shape your future in positive ways.

Related: Why You Need to Stop Worrying About Failing


This article appears in the April 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.