We have all heard the sayings "To err is human" and "you live and you learn". We make mistakes every day, large and small, failures and faux pas. But failure and mistakes still don't feel like an awesome learning opportunity. I know it is my shortcomings that make me unique and that I should embrace the stumbles and screw ups. But it is a challenge for me and a challenge for many of us. We live and act in ways to prevent mistakes -- not taking risks, expanding our comfort zones or jumping outside the boxes we hide in. But our mistakes and failures are gifts, gems, guideposts in our learning and growth as people. So embrace failures, mistakes, screw ups and shortcomings because they not only make us uniquely who we are, but also teach us powerful lessons like the nine below.
1. Mistakes teach us to clarify what we really want and how we want to live. The word mistake derives meaning only by comparison to what we desire, what we see as success. Noticing and admitting our mistakes helps us get in touch with our commitments--what we really want to be, do, and have. Mistakes wake us up and focus our attention like a flashing sign that says "fix this". The urgency created causes us to focus on issues or problems that make us feel off track. Working on possible solutions, redefining what we want or expect, or reexamining our values or goals can lead us to more clarity about our path.
2. Mistakes teach us to accept ourselves and that we can be flawed and be loved. We can fully appreciate ourselves, even while acknowledging our screw ups. It is possible to laugh at our mistakes and then work hard to correct them. Most of us have a long history of putting ourselves down when we blow it. But it's a self-defeating habit we must break so that we can start appreciating ourselves, mistakes and all. People who love and care about us will stick with us through all our flaws and floundering. Our not so perfectness is what makes us unique and we are loved for it. So we should give ourselves a break.
3. Mistakes teach us to accept our fallibility and face our fear. Sometimes even our best efforts just don't work out. We might do everything possible to achieve a certain result and still fail, again and again. When this happens we can admit that we're stuck. Facing mistakes often takes us straight to the heart of our fears. And when we experience and face those fears, they can disappear. When we are stuck and admit that we can't do it alone it sends a signal and opens the door for help to show up. People, resources, and solutions will appear, especially when we ask for help.
4. Mistakes teach us about ourselves and how to tell our truth. It is natural to want to cover up our mistakes or be embarrassed by them. To feel like we wish we had a handy mistake eraser or remover. But being honest about our failures and limitations offer us opportunities to practice telling the truth. Admitting the truth allows us to expand our knowledge of self-to know who we are. And thus, increases our capacity to change. It is like holding up a mirror to ourselves and really seeing. When we tell others about our mistakes, to let them really see us, it allows us to let go of the embarrassment, shame and blame we may feel so that we can concentrate on learning and growing.
5. Mistakes teach us, through analysis and feedback, about what works, and what doesn't. It's a reality check. When we experience the consequences of mistakes, we get a clear message about which of our efforts are working--and which are not. The feedback we get from our mistakes can be the most specific, pointed, and powerful feedback we'll ever get. Many times we can trace mistakes to recurring patterns of belief or behavior--things we do, say, and think over and over again. When we spot and change a habit we may find that other areas of our lives change for the better. One way to gain maximum benefit from mistakes is to examine them through the filter of powerful questions: "How can I use this experience?"; "What will I do differently next time?"; "How will I be different in the future?" Questions like these lead to an inquiry that invites solutions.
6. Mistakes teach us to take responsibility. Sometimes our instinctive reaction to a mistake is to shift blame elsewhere: "It's not my fault." "You never told me about that," Or the classic "I don't see how this has anything to do with me." It is more empowering to look for our role in the mistake. Taking responsibility for a failure may not be fun. But the act of doing so points out what we can do differently next time. Investigating our role reminds us that our choices and our actions have a huge influence on the quality of our lives.
7. Mistakes teach us about integrity. Mistakes often happen when we break promises, over-commit, agree to avoid conflict or fail to listen fully. Big mistakes often start as small errors. Over time, tiny choices that run counter to our values or goals can accumulate into breakdowns. Even our smallest choices have power, so it is important we pay attention to the integrity of the choices we make every day. Mistakes can be a signal that our words and our actions are out of alignment. In that case, we can re-examine our intentions, reconsider our commitments, and adjust our actions.
8. Mistakes teach us to engage in our lives -- to live fully. We are not our behaviors and we are more than our mistakes. We can remember that our history does not have to predict our future. And then remember that we have an opportunity to go all in--to participate fully. Many people, when faced with a big mistake, begin to pull back--to retreat. Instead, we can use the failure as evidence that we are growing, risking, and stretching to meet our potential. Mistakes help us to remember that we are not content to play it safe. That we understand that without risk there is sometimes no reward.
9. Mistakes allow us to inspire others. They may be inspired when we are courageous and make our private struggles public. They might decide to live differently. When a lifelong smoker who's dying of emphysema talks about the value of being smoke-free, we're apt to listen. The same kind of contribution also occurs when we speak candidly about less serious mistakes. As parents we can teach our children that it is OK to fail because we are willing to let them see our failures and mistakes. This gives us opportunities to talk through what we could or would have done differently. These are powerful lessons for those around us.
Follow Lisabeth Saunders Medlock, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabethmedlock
Mistakes, experimentation, and failure are the hot topic in education and creativity circles these days. Here at 99U, we’ve covered Tim Harford’s new book on the importance of making mistakes and adapting, rounded up tons of creatives talking about the fringe benefits of failure, and heard bestselling author Joshua Foer talk about how we must step out of our comfort zones. And if you don’t believe us, the NY Times Magazine just did an edition on why failure may be the key to success.
So when I stumbled on this Dilbert cartoon that spoofs the common job interview question, “Describe your biggest mistake and what you learned from it,” I couldn’t just laugh it off. It actually felt like a question worthy of deep consideration. So that’s what I’d like to ask you to contemplate today:
What was your biggest mistake, and what did you learn from it?
Is making mistakes really all that bad? Can we demystify our fear of failure? I’d love to hear your perspective. Please share your stories in the comments below.
To start the thread, I’ll share mine:
One of the biggest mistakes I made was a poor job transition in 2007. I had been working for an exciting startup called Flavorpill for a little over 4 years. When I joined in 2002, the company was expanding, and I had the opportunity to assemble an editorial team, collaborate with the founders on growing the brand, and work closely with our wonderful design partners to build and launch new products. It was a great job and I learned a ton. But eventually, I knew it was time to move on.
A friend connected me with the CEO of a massive music website that wanted to reinvent its coverage for a new, hipper audience. He was looking for an editor with a vision. I didn’t like their current website, but the allure of having carte blanche to reinvent the site was strong. I was also offered more money than I had ever made, and the opportunity to relocate to Los Angeles. I was ready for a major change, and this seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.
As a result, I probably didn’t do as much homework on the position as I should have. After just a few weeks on the job, I realized something was amiss. To name just a few of the problems:
- My immediate superior and the primary person I was excited to be working with quit shortly after my arrival.
- I recognized that this was not a startup environment. Decisions were hampered by bureaucracy and fear of upsetting what was already a good thing.
- The people whose support I needed were not all on board with the CEO’s thirst for reinvention. Not everyone wanted change.
Recognizing all of the above, it quickly became apparent that the possibility of thinking (and acting) creatively within the organization would be slim, and consequently so was the possibility of affecting any kind of major change.
The people I worked with were lovely, despite the dysfunctions of the larger organization, so I tried to make the best of it for awhile. After it became clear that I wasn’t going to get anywhere, and I decided to get out.
Less than 10 months after I had moved to LA to take that new job, I moved back to New York and started working as a freelance consultant. Within a year, I was working with Behance, and we were planting the seeds for the research that would evolve into this website, 99U.com. In other words, everything worked out great in the end.
Four years after my ill-considered move to LA, I hardly even remember the negative aspects of that experience. What sticks with me are the crucial lessons and relationships that came out of that “failure”:
- I learned that I love the freedom, flexibility, and creativity of startup environments.
- I learned that having enough money is important, but more money will never motivate me if I lack passion or belief in a company’s larger vision.
- I learned that removing myself from my normal environment (in this case, New York) was a great way to reflect on next steps for my career. Even if I did it during a time when I had just made a bit of a career misstep!
- I met a bunch of great people (who all moved back to New York, too) that have made a great impact on my life.
When I look at it this way, it doesn’t feel much like a failure. It just feels like a very necessary learning experience.
What’s Your Story?
What was your biggest mistake, and what did you learn?