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Mistakes, We All Make Them

| July 31, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… Own them, learn from them, don’t repeat them

mis•take  noun  an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong.
The only man [or woman] who never makes a mistake is the man [or woman] who never does anything.”
                                    – Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States

We all make mistakes, both large and small over the course of our lives. Some mistakes seem, at least to ourselves, to be so small that there is no need to even acknowledge, or apologize for, them; others are so significant that acknowledgment and often some form of remediation or restitution is required.
Examples that come to mind include not acknowledging a close friend as you pass in the corridor; arriving late, or at the wrong time or on the wrong day, for a meeting; not preparing for a meeting at which you had a key role; installing the wrong software on a client’s computer; arguing with the security guard over whether you have the right credentials to enter a facility; causing real damage to someone or something; etc. And, the list continues without any real end.
Often our immediate reaction to a mistake is a sense of shame and failure. We immediately recall that in school, mistakes represented failure and we learned to do whatever we could to avoid them and/or deny that we even made the mistake. Since we don’t like to feel shame or failure, we give up or don’t attempt any activity or goal which we think we may not be able to execute perfectly. The authors of the MindTools essay “How to Learn from Your Mistakes,” take this a step further saying, “if we simply apologize and carry-on as before, we’re in danger of repeating the same errors.”1
Scott Berkun,2 author and speaker, conveys this same thought from a different perspective: “You can only learn from a mistake after you admit you’ve made it.”  He goes on writing, “Admission of a mistake, even if only privately to yourself, makes learning possible by moving the focus away from blame assignment and towards understanding.”
He continues: “For anyone who never discovers a deeper self-identity, based not on lack of mistakes but on courage, compassionate intelligence, commitment and creativity, life is a scary place made safe only by never getting into trouble, never breaking rules and never taking the risks that their hearts tell them they need to take.”
Adam Sicinski,3 writing in the IQMatrix Blog makes the same point: “Mistakes are valuable. However, for them to be of value, you must first see them as a beneficial and critical part of your life that you cannot avoid and must instead embrace with an open heart and open mind.  Who knows, your biggest mistakes could end up turning into your most glorious victories, as long as you are open to learning and growing from the experience.”
So, what do you do when you’ve made a mistake? Here’s a simple plan:

  1.  Own your mistake. Before you can learn from what you did, you have to accept full responsibility for your role in whatever happened. Take ownership. Take a deep breath, apologize and don’t minimize your responsibility or blame anyone else. If you “broke” something take responsibility for its remediation.
  2. Understand and reframe the mistake. While it is not helpful to dwell on the mistake, it is important to reframe what happened as a learning opportunity. What was I trying to do? What actually happened? Why? What specifically would you need to do to keep from repeating the mistake? [For example, if you are frequently late for meetings, you could make it a practice to hold time on your calendar before each meeting, sufficient for you to get to the meeting place on time, so that you won’t be late.] What can I learn from this? 
  3. Make a plan. Put the lessons into practice. Beating yourself up over what went wrong won’t really change anything. What will you do differently to avoid making a similar mistake the next time you are in that situation? Keep the plan simple with sufficient details to guide you in a set of similar situations. This plan will require discipline and motivation as it will require you to change your habits. And, we all know how difficult that is.
  4. Check on your progress. There’s never a guarantee that we’ll get it right the first time we try to correct our mistake. So, you might use a tool like the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle4 to check on your progress.

We all make mistakes, sometimes occasionally and sometimes on a more regular basis – like, for example, being late for most meetings we attend.  Since mistakes do negatively impact “how we show up,” it is worth the effort to reduce the number of mistakes we make. Perhaps there is something that comes to mind that you think it would be worth working on. What about beginning this week?
Do make it a great week.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. MindTools, How to Learn from Your Mistakes.
  2. Scott Berkun, How to Identify and Learn from Your, November 2011.
  3. Adam Sicinski, Quit Complaining and Start Learning from Your Mistakes, IQMatrix Blog.
  4. ASQ, Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle.

Other helpful readings:
Amy Morin, 5 Ways To Turn Your Mistake Into a Valuable Life Lesson, Forbes, July 2017.
 Lisabeth Saunders Medlock, Don’t Fear Failure:  Nine Powerful Lessons We Can Learn From Our Mistakes,, November 2014.