The Mistakes that Build Success

When I opened the book at the client location, I nearly fainted. The material in the box on p. 6 was completely garbled. No words, just a collection of letters and numbers. It’s a mistake clients get upset over. I hadn’t checked the books because the printer had printed them before, and done it correctly. And there were three other pages where the material in the sidebar was a graphic element, but didn’t make sense.

The ladder to success can often look like a bleak staircase.

The ladder to success can often look like a bleak staircase.

I saw my opportunity at this client slipping downhill, fast. Trying to make it a teachable moment, I pointed it out to the participants. I explained that no matter how often something seems routine, we don’t know what happens at the printer–new people, new software, new techniques. Every book delivery needs proofing.

There are two points to making a mistake work for you. The first is to admit it. The second it to fix it. Checking with the person who organizes the class, I made sure she could distribute to the whole class. She agreed that if I sent her the pdf of the book, she could distribute it.

I told the class they would receive a pdf of the book to use. A few members were disgruntled and said this kind of mistake shouldn’t happen, and they would note it on the evaluation. Even though the mistake was fixed, the emotional damage was done. I spoke to one participant in particular, and he said if he were my supervisor, he’d fire me for such a mistake. And he would complain to the training department. I’m sure he will.

Mistakes happen. They need to be taken in context. The Powerpoint I had with me showed the material correctly. There were four pages with mistakes on portions of the page. I’m not trivializing my error, but taken in context, it didn’t diminish the learning possible in the class.

I’m a big proponent of learning from mistakes, it’s unfortunately the way most of us learn best. We never think, “Wow, that presentation really went well. Was it because I practiced or because I decided not to use a PowerPoint or studied up on potential questions?” Nope. If we do well, we feel lucky. But we learn more from mistakes.

Those people who don’t make mistakes are people who aren’t trying hard enough. Or who hide their mistakes or blame them on others. And those people, in many corporations, and in the government, are often the people who rise to the top. Or maybe I should say “float” to the top. By dodging mistakes, they look blameless. Notice I said blameless, not faultless.

They dodge and weave the effects of their mistakes. Because they make lots of mistakes–everyone does–they learn how not to get caught. Then they believe the problem is getting caught, not making a mistake. Admitting the mistake would teach them something. Instead, they bury their learning experience. I’d respect someone who made a mistake and admitted it and knew how to fix it and prevent it.

It would be an excellent idea if corporations encouraged mistake-learning early, and promoted people who solved their own problems and had the integrity to admit mistakes and the problem-solving ability to prevent them from happening again. That’s someone to admire and promote.

Quinn McDonald is a trainer, writer and mistake maker. She lives with all of it.