Mistakes: The good and the bad
My friend Dave and I have something in common: We’ll both die at least twice. Each of us had medical occurrences that caused breath and blood to stop flowing — his very recently, mine when I was a young man. I’d like to keep it to two; the first occurrence wasn’t so fun.
Unlike physical death, failing at a job or a project may seem like a big deal, but in the grand scheme of things it usually isn’t. In fact, it can be a great learning experience. We often learn more from failure than we do from success.
There’s a difference between wanting to win and not tolerating failure. Sore losers are usually no fun to be around and often have issues that go back to Mommy and Daddy. Gracious and competitive people want to win, but their self-esteem isn’t tightly wrapped up in it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to “package” failure to try to bamboozle everyone into thinking we won? During interviews for a senior job, what if you told prospects you wanted to hear about their three greatest mistakes and what they learned, and if they weren’t big, you’d stop the interview? A response such as, “Well, Todd, at Company ABC I was put into an impossible situation, and I learned that I always need to work for someone smart, like you!” would be unacceptable.
Wouldn’t it be great if we told young people starting their careers that it was okay to make mistakes and, in fact, we expect them to make some — we’d just like them to learn from these slipups? “Good” mistakes would be those in which you tried to get a win for the company and took reasonable risk. “Bad” mistakes would be ethical lapses, poorly thought through courses of action or repeated behavior that didn’t work previously.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve too often held myself back because I didn’t want to make a mistake for fear of failure or public embarrassment. What a shame!
Some jobs lend themselves to more experimentation than others. If you’re running a nuclear power plant, it’s probably unwise to make a lot of mistakes. Most of us, however, work and lead others in positions and careers where good mistakes should be more common.
Tolerance alone won’t foster good mistakes. You need to celebrate them. “Good attempt” should be a more common affirmation in most companies. It’s not really life or death.