Go ahead, make a mistake

Thomas Edison acknowledged that he didn’t know anything about making light bulbs and that is took him close to 3,000 experiments before he hit upon a carbonized cotton filament that would burn for more than a few minutes. As for poor results, Edison decided to take the high road and was quoted as saying “Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

Mistakes are tough for us to take. We view them as a sign of failure. But the reality is that we rarely get things right the first time and that it is only by acknowledging and learning from our mistakes that we improve our performance and success.

I recently got a phone call from a client who seemed frantic on the phone. He told me that he had made a major screwup by not “appropriately responding to a call from his company’s regional president”. The day the call came in, he told me, he was working on a proposal that he had recently received and that had to be out later that week. When his regional president asked him to prepare some documents for his review, he explained to him that he was working on this proposal and asked if he could get to it later in the week. The RP told him okay but a few minutes later his boss came in chastising him about putting the RP’s work on the back burner.

We talked about what he could do to manage the situation while acknowledging that while he was on target in terms of what needed to get done, he probably did not handle it in the best way possible. In about 5 minutes we came up with a quick solution:

  • He tagged another member of his team to begin working on the Regional President’s request. He knew that she would not have all the relevant information but could begin the research and that he would be able to backfill her with information that would allow her to get at least 75% of the report completed. He could finish up from there.
  • He would send off an email to the RP immediately letting him know that he had put a plan in place and would provide him with a time frame for completion that would fit his requirement. He would also cc his boss to let him know what he had done.
  • He would follow-up with the RP a day or two after the report was completed and sent off and would (depending on how the call went) apologize for the screw-up explaining that he was really focused on the proposal and he let that work get the better of him.

We reconnected a few weeks later and he told me that all was good. His proposal response got off in time and he was named a finalist. His Regional President appreciated his quick response and his apology. In fact his RP even went so far as to apologize back to him for making the request since the RP knew he was working on that important proposal.

So what’s a game plan for making mistakes…

  1. Embrace your mistake and don’t run away from it. Don’t become defensive but instead recognize that it happens to all of us all the time.
  2. Acknowledge it to someone who can either help you think it through or even to the person you’ve offended. We live in a very forgiving culture and for the most part, people will see your truthfulness as a sign of strength
  3. Rely on your support network to help you get the issue resolved. That may be your boss, team members or a friend. Others can bring a new perspective to the table.
  4. Change how you are doing things. If you see a pattern where you are making a similar mistake whether its with a colleague or your kids, see what you need to do to make it better
  5. Get back out there. Making a mistake can make you a bit gun-shy. Your risk level, idea sharing and courage may suffer a bit since you want, above all, not to screw up again. The only way you’ll find out is to get back on the horse and try again.

Making mistakes is a part of life. In fact, the more you make, the smarter you get, so go ahead and screw up!

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