The University of Southampton
Life at Southampton

Learning by Mistake

Making mistakes is tough. Or at least, I find it really tough! But science, research, university, learning… it’s all about mistakes, right?

Choosing our paths

“I don’t have the perfect roadmap drawn out, but I do know which roads I’ll never drive down again.” – Brittany Burgunder (mental health advocate, professional coach)

Something I continue to struggle with in my PhD is the very reason i was attracted to it in the first place – the freedom and flexibility to choose the direction of my research.

I never thought of myself as bad at making choices.

But when i pick up a book on coastal flooding (my PhD research area) I strictly tell myself: “Only read the relevant chapters!”… and then I somehow find myself trying to get through the whole book. Ditto for when I’m presented with 20 seemingly relevant article son a Web of Science search fo “coastal flood risk perceptions England”: I just want to read them all!


One Friday, I finally found this gem of a report in the Hartley Library… “I’ll only read a bit”, I told myself… Not a chance!

Supervisor-endorsed blundering

“By seeking and blundering we learn.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German writer and statesman, 18-19th century)

I had expected it would be my supervisors who would be the strictest in terms of method, in terms of rigour, in terms of not proceeding a step until I know every detail of my method, my aim, my data, my literature, etc etc etc. And in some cases they are.

With my data collection, for example: I didn’t proceed a millimetre until I had a justification for every question I wanted to ask to coastal flood risk management stakeholders.


It seemed to take forever before I finally got to set off by train, ferry and bike to start collecting some of my precious interview data!

But now that it’s time for some thematic analysis, I find myself being encouraged by my supervisory team to… well, to not hold onto the reins of control too much, to follow the intriguing parts of data, to explore it for what it has to say to me. And, surprise (!), that seems to me to be as hard as choosing was earlier in my PhD!

Learning equals winning

“A lifelong learner is a lifelong winner.” – Matshona Dhliwayo (philosopher, entrepreneur, author)

Here’s the thing, right – we learn by making mistakes. By trying out a hypothesis and finding out it is NOT correct. WOW that can be such an interesting conclusion, when we find out that that which was expected does not occur.

I continue to find making mistakes painful, but I’m glad that the University offers many avenues through which we can try and fail, and still be safeguarded by the learning environment. Societies can be places to try out and debate ideas, and extended projects in undergraduate and postgraduate learning might give you a greater idea of the implications of what you’re learning, without the ramifications of making errors in the “real world”. Mock vivas in the PhD allow us to stumble around in the dark, and know what to avoid in the real thing.


Cycling and sports are a place where I feel more comfortable failing – I guess I still need to do more to transfer those feelings to my scientific endeavours…

When we are brave enough to acknowledge our mistakes and take the time to learn from them, we are taking grand steps to making the most of the incredible learning space that universities provide.

“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; what matters is if you learn from it or not.” – Mohith Agadi (entrepreneur, author)

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