A lesson in making mistakes

Try to remember the last time you uttered the words, “I made a mistake.”  Was it painful?  Expensive?  Career-changing?  Or therapeutic?
When my kids were young, they used to sing along with a little ditty on “Sesame Street” that went something like this:  “Everyone makes mistakes, so why not you?” 
That’s the wisdom of children speaking:   Everyone makes mistakes.  Including me.  And you.

“Humans have learned only through mistakes,” said engineer and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller. 
“The billions of humans in history have had to make quadrillions of mistakes to have arrived at the state where we now have 150,000 common words to identify that many unique and only metaphysically comprehensible nuances of experience.”

He added:  “So effective has been the non-thinking, group deceit of humanity that it now says, ‘Nobody should make mistakes,’ and punishes people for making mistakes . . .  the courage to adhere to the truth as we learn it involves them, the courage to force ourselves, with the clear admission of all the mistakes we have made – mistakes are sins only when not admitted.”

In business, mistakes can derail a career.  But is that fair?  I completely agree with what my friend William R. Brody, former president of Johns Hopkins University, said in a 2005 speech:  “Mistakes are the downside of risk-taking.  And it seems as if we’ve become very unwilling to tolerate mistakes.  We’re willing to risk failure in our games, in extreme sports, in our competition on TV reality shows.  But not in our business. Not in our research and development – not in our careers or in our medicines or homes, our schools or our personal lives. . . . Being risk-averse is hurting our global competitiveness and stagnating our incomes.”

So when you risk something new or different, you must be prepared for both good and disappointing results.  And try as you might, you may not be able to avoid business mistakes.  Keep your boss, employees or associates informed and make adjustments as issues arise.   

And when a problem develops – as it often does – here are some thoughts on how to turn around your mistakes:

  • Be honest.  Never try to cover up mistakes.  The earlier you ’fess up, the faster you’ll be able to correct the problem while maintaining your credibility. 
  • Take responsibility.  Your bosses and employees don’t want to hear excuses.  It’s a powerful way to show a sense of accountability for your actions and those of your team. 
  • Don’t blame.  Focus on solving problems, not finding someone or something to blame.  Good managers and employees analyze what they did wrong and learn from it.  When the manager takes this tack, employees will be encouraged to learn to look objectively at their own performance.
  • Follow up and follow through.  Sometimes simple mistakes point to more complex problems that need to be corrected.  A thorough evaluation can reveal something about your habits or the work processes that need to improve
  • Use the opportunity to turn around a situation.  Mistakes often are prime times for people to turn bad situations into positive ones.  Any customer service guru will tell you that a complaint can be the perfect time to provide the best customer service you have to offer. 
  • Move on.  Beating yourself up publicly or privately doesn’t do much good.  You need to keep your focus and not get distracted when things go wrong.

A story from the book “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland, illustrates the power of taking chances and risking failure when you’re trying to achieve something of quality.  On the first day of class, a ceramics teacher announced that he was putting his students into two groups.  Half the students would be graded on quantity of works produced, the other half on the quality of just one work.  

On the final day of class, the instructor looked at the pots from both groups and realized that the best pots – those with the most creative designs and those that seemed most beautiful – all came from the group graded on quantity.

As the authors put it:  “It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Mackay’s Moral:  The biggest mistake you can make is pretending that you didn’t make one.  

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