Learning from mistakes are key to success
Mistakes Are An Important Part of Success. Photo Credit: IStock

Everyone screws up – and those mistakes are hugely valuable. Because the learning that comes from the mistake is what can propel us, and those around us, to excellence. As long as we learn and share what we learned with our teams over the long haul.

In episode   #4 of our podcast Millennial Minded, co-host Duncan Lowe asked me questions about what do to when you screw up at work. I shared two big mistakes that I made in my career. The first, when I hadn’t checked the details on a corporate invitation, and the RSVP number was incorrect. I was 23. It was terrible. I was lucky the 1-800 number didn’t go to an objectionable number.

The second, as vice president of corporate and consumer communication, when I didn’t ensure that Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske’s presentation wasn’t touched before he went on at a big financial conference. He spoke without visuals for 15 minutes in front of hundreds of the key industry executives and media (he killed it). Afterwards, the president of Nintendo of America asked how long I had to clean out my desk. I didn’t lose either of these jobs, but my stomach still drops when I think about these things.

I learned from both of those mistakes  and passed on that learning to every team I have had since, and no team I’ve worked with in the 20 years since has repeated my mistake since.


For the record, here’s how to avoid these mistakes:

  1. Always have at least two people call the phone numbers and emails in your invitations.
  2. Always test-run your presentations and if someone else is responsible for running the show, assign someone to be with the producer until the presentation is over to make sure the file doesn’t get corrupted AND always have a back up ready.

 What to do when you make a mistake?

  1. Alert the person impacted by your mistake as soon as you realize it.
  2. Apologize for the mistake. (Do NOT make a non-apology apology, ever.)
  3. Commit to figuring out how to rectify the mistake.
  4. Fix the mistake as quickly and well as possible.
  5. Figure out what went wrong.
  6. Put a process in place so that the mistake never happens again.
  7. Share your learning with your team today, and your teams in the future, so they can benefit from the learning.

If you don’t learn from your failure, you’ve failed twice. If you don’t share what you learned, you’ve failed 100 times. Once is enough.

At the same time we all need room to fail. No one is perfect. Failure is part of success; how else will we learn and get the muscle memory we need to do things well?

Working Through Mistakes Brings Success

My older son is a musician who doesn’t really like practicing very much. He likes performing under-rehearsed less though. I’ve learned a lot from his approach to practice, and the wonderful instructors he’s had a the organ, piano and voice. The best advice I’ve ever heard is from John Bragle, Director of Choirs and Instructor of Voice  at Interlochen Arts Academy: Don’t practice something until you get it right; practice it until you can’t get it wrong.”  (You can hear my interview with him here.) If you’ve ever listened to someone learning new repertoire, you’ve heard a myriad of mistakes; it’s only through the repetition and finding ways to move through the mistakes themselves that musicians take command of their material.

Yet, our culture doesn’t like failure. I’ve written and spoken about the negative impact of helicopter parents, and grade inflation on people and their careers quite a bit. The single worst thing a parent can do is not let their child fail when their work or effort doesn’t make the grade. By getting involved, fixing the project, redoing the homework, interfering with teachers and “negotiating” (I use the term loosely), helicopter parents are not allowing their children to learn how to come back from a less than stellar effort, how to work through challenge, to learn a new skill to the point of mastery. I see young people every day who are not ready for the work place because their parents have never let their children stand on their own. Better to learn how to fail and get back up again when you’re young so that you know that you can, than have to learn that as an adult.

Freedom To Fail

My friend Robert Glazer, CEO of Acceleration Partners, shared a letter one of his children’s soccer coaches sent to his players’ parents on his popular Friday Forward blog last week. You can read Bob’s post about the “Freedom to Fail” here. I really resonate with this part of the coach’s letter:

“If a player is constantly being told what to do by a coach or a parent from a sideline, or constantly yelled at for their mistakes, is the player really taking anything from the experience?  Coaches and parents who find it necessary to shout instructions to individuals or coach their team through the entire match are eliminating one of the most important aspects of a players development, the ability to make mistakes. Allowing players to make mistakes on their own, without the threat of immediate backlash from a coach or parent, or without the ability to blame someone for shouting the wrong instruction to him or her, is one of the critical elements to any players growth in the game. Players need to make mistakes on the field in order for them to realize what needs to be done the next time around in order to see a different outcome.”

He was addressing parents of 8 and 9 year olds!

Building The Space To Make Mistakes

So, how do we build in the freedom to fail in our teams while also performing at a high level and propelling a business forward?

First, we need to create cultures where people are safe to make mistakes as long as they own them and learn from them. This requires a culture of strong communication, where expectations for performance and behavior are established, understood and regularly reinforced.

Second, when we see our colleagues making mistakes we need to bring it to their attention.

Third, we must have expectations that we and our team members will learn how to avoid the mistake the next time it could happen for ourselves AND for our colleagues. Sharing the mistake and the lessons learned from it is critical for the organization to move forward.

Fourth, we need to honor those people who have overcome mistakes and become masters of their work.

As Maya Angelou said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”