When Ofir Paldi entered the prestigious Israeli Air Force Flight Academy at age 18, he received instructions that surprised him. All anyone seemed to want him to talk about were the mistakes he was making.
“You’re in a very competitive place. You have the biggest motivation to succeed and all you want to do all the time is to be the best and impress everyone around you,” he says. “And day by day the only thing you are expected [to do] is to speak about the mistakes you [made].”
After each flight, they’d debrief, covering what they learned, what they could’ve done better (and would try to do better next time), and what they did well that they wanted to remember to do again. “You can sit down…100 pilots together in one room—it’s the place with the most ego in the world—and you can still speak about your mistakes and you see everybody stand up” to share, he says, from the youngest pilot all the way up to the commander.
You can sit down…100 pilots together in one room—it’s the place with the most ego in the world—and you can still speak about your mistakes and you see everybody stand up.
When he left the air force after almost nine years as a pilot he became an entrepreneur, and his current business, Shamaym, was inspired by the kind of training he received there. The company, which recently relocated from Tel Aviv to Boston, works with organizations to implement a debriefing-based learning model. To put it simply, they help teams adopt a culture where it’s not only okay but also imperative to think and talk about mistakes in order to make everyone—and the organization—better.
Most people want to learn, in theory, but “you always have another meeting and another task and another email, and we just don’t find the time to stop and reflect,” Paldi says. However, he insists that if pilots in uber high-stress roles can admit to errors to improve their performance, anyone can.
You don’t have to hire Shamaym to learn how to learn from your mistakes. Here’s how you can use this approach to grow in your role and career. Bonus: You get to pretend to be a pilot in the process.
Step 1: Take Personal Responsibility for Your Learning
There’s a lot that changes when you make the transition from student to employee. Perhaps first and foremost, it’s no longer anyone’s explicit or sole job to teach you. You may have supportive bosses or kind mentors who show you the ropes and help you grow, but your day-to-day learning is mostly in your own hands.
Paldi stresses that one of the main tenets of the approach he’s borrowed from the air force is taking personal responsibility. “When you finish a task, you are the one who’s responsible to learn from it, and you can’t wait or think that someone will come and teach you,” he says.
When you finish a task, you are the one who’s responsible to learn from it, and you can’t wait or think that someone will come and teach you.
That’s why you can only debrief yourself. When you go over what went well and what didn’t, focus on what you did and what mistakes you made, not what your boss, co-workers, clients, or anyone else did.
As we spoke on the phone, Paldi used our interview as an example to drive the point home. “Let’s just say that you didn’t get all the information you needed from the call. So you can never speak about me and why didn’t you learn from me,” he says. “You always look at yourself—what I, Stav, could have done better in this call or the preparation for this call in order to get more information.”
You can’t easily change what other people are doing, but you can change what you’re doing.
Step 2: Figure Out What Your “Flights” Are
In order to put the debriefing strategy into practice, you have to figure out which recurring and important task you want to focus on. In the air force, it’s pretty obvious: flights. Paldi and the other pilots he trained with would go through their mistakes and successes after each flight.
While you probably do your job at a lower altitude, you surely have duties you repeat frequently that are central to your role. Consider those your “flights.” For example, a reporter’s flights might be conducting interviews, writing articles, fact-checking, and going through revision processes with their editors, while someone in sales might consider their flights to be making client calls, creating pitch decks, giving presentations, and shepherding deals through contracts to close.
Everyone’s flights will be different. Figure out what yours are and pick one type to start with that you want to work on improving.
Step 3: Conduct Short and Simple Debriefs
Start debriefing with yourself after each “flight.” Spend just a few minutes each time asking yourself: What went well? What didn’t go as well as it could or should have? What can I do better the next time around? Pick out the two or three main things that you think you can improve or that you totally nailed and want to repeat.
If you’re trying to hold yourself accountable, consider keeping a log of your debriefs and referring to it before each flight. And if you work in an environment where you’re discussing and setting growth goals with your manager, try incorporating what you’re discovering in your debriefs into this formal conversation to help keep yourself on track.
The most important thing here is not to wait until something goes horribly wrong to start debriefing. Make it part of your routine even when things are chugging along pretty smoothly. That way, you make learning a habit and you’ll be able to improve and grow incrementally and consistently. You could potentially even avoid a terrible snafu in the first place, but even if it happens, by the time it does you’ll be well-versed in the practice of picking apart what went wrong and ensuring you do better the next time.
Step 4: Decide What You’ll Repeat or Do Differently (and Be Specific)
Paldi’s biggest tip about those quick debriefing, or learning, sessions is to be extremely specific and extract actionable takeaways. “In our human nature, when we learn something we say, ‘Okay, we’ll do better or we’ll do it differently,’” Paldi says. “But it’s not enough.”
In our human nature, when we learn something we say, ‘Okay, we’ll do better or we’ll do it differently.’ But it’s not enough.
Going back to the example of our interview, it wouldn’t be enough for me to conclude that I didn’t get enough background information. Instead, I’d have to come up with the specific questions I should have asked to try to get the material I was missing.
You don’t have to be a pilot to work like one. Just remember that it can take time to get comfortable being so brutally honest (with yourself or others) about the mistakes you’re making. Paldi admits it took a couple of months before he was able to debrief the way his air force instructors wanted him to.
“Even if at the beginning it’s a little bit hard, I think that one of the biggest advantages you can take to the business world is your ability to...constantly learn and improve by yourself and maximize your potential,” Paldi says. “Because it’s a competitive world out there, it’s an intense world. No one will be there to do it for you, so your competitive advantage would be if you could do it by yourself.”
Photo of formation of military jets courtesy of flik47/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author