Learn From Your Mistakes

Reprinted from Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big by Ralph Heath 9c) 2009 by Ralph Heath (Career Press, www.careerpress.com).

If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.  –F. Wilczek

Pointing out my own mistakes has been a planned part of my management philosophy. I do it because I cannot keep repeating that it is perfectly acceptable for the people around me to make mistakes in their work, and yet pretend that I never make them. What better way to send a message to the entire organization that it is okay to make mistakes than to point out my own?

I should clarify that I’m talking about bold mistakes, mistakes that come from taking risks, not about failing to do your job professionally. (Sending a letter with typos to a client because you did not use spell-check or skipped proofreading is not a mistake. It is unprofessional.)

The Necessity of Mistakes

I encourage people with whom I work to take risks and publicly attempt to reward risk-takers, especially when they fail. It is essential to be free of the fear of making mistakes. 

Unfortunately, educators have helped make many people petrified of errors. The responsibility is also shared by a host of others–most of them well-meaning parents, spouses, friends, religious authorities, coworkers and employers.

However, for a company to achieve success, its people cannot be afraid to make errors. They must actually make hundreds of mistakes fearlessly as part of the process of learning what works and how to succeed.

Why do we hesitate to go back in time and attempt to learn from our own failures? The short answer is, because it can be painful. It takes a certain level of understanding and self-confidence to examine your own mistakes. Unfortunately, self-confidence is not a quality present in all people. 

Leaders must create an environment where the workers understand it is not only okay, but essential to make mistakes on their way to greatness. When you believe positively that mistakes are a key part of the process and path to success, it takes away the burden of making them.

The Value of Mistakes

Mistakes are learning experiences that propel people toward success. Because of the knowledge they have acquired, these workers deserve more money as they become more valuable to the enterprise. There is no better way to reinforce risk-taking and bold deeds than by rewarding mistakes and failures.

And, although it’s possible to learn from the mistakes of others, the lessons we learn from our own misjudgments are the most indelibly etched on our psyche–for better or worse. Sometimes a leader can be most supportive when he or she lets an associate try and fail with a risky idea, than by citing previous wisdom and dictating a course of action. 

In any case, we need to learn to accept mistakes in leaders as well as in coworkers. Acceptance cannot be for the mistakes of our coworkers and peer group only. There must be absolute forgiveness for everyone, including managers and company presidents.

Leaders, by virtue of their position on the firing line, have the potential to make more mistakes. Their mistakes are often highly visible, with many witnesses, and they often involve large amounts of money. And, because leaders have power, they are sometimes able to conceal their mistakes. That, however, is wrong, as they could lose the benefit of learning from the errors. Instead, send the message to the organization that it’s okay to make mistakes when attempting bold, new initiatives that are the lifeblood and future of your organizations.

You cannot buy or plan the kind of education that mistakes and failure provide. They demonstrate that you are out there on the front lines, taking risks and giving your best effort. Learning from your mistakes and failure makes you more valuable to any company. People who are confident in their abilities are not afraid to share their blunders. Rejoice in your mistakes and failures, celebrate as you gain experience “the hard way” and learn the valuable lessons that error and failure have to teach you. 


Ralph Heath, a managing partner of Synergy Leadership Group, is a John Caples advertising award winner. He is also a keynote speaker and author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big. Visit his blog at: www.RalphHeath.com.

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