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.


The Bent Frame

Not even clear how it happened, but my glasses frames got bent. They are very light frames, so the damage was total. No way they could be worn. While my distance vision is fine, my near vision needs to be corrected with glasses. To make matters just a bit more tense, on Monday I’m leaving on a business trip to teach, so I need to see clearly.

These aren't my glasses. Mine look a lot worse. But you can get the idea.

These aren’t my glasses. Mine look a lot worse. But you can get the idea.

My first impulse was to grab a pair of pliers and bend the glasses back into shape. But I don’t have jeweler’s tools anymore.

My second realization was that the place I bought the glasses is closed on Sunday.

My third thought was . . . to think of a simple solution, one not connected to panic. That was not quite as easy, because the impulse was to use my fingers to straighten the glasses. The frames are so light. But I know about metal fatigue–and that overeager “fixing” can cause more damage than leaving it alone. I’ve done a lot of home repairs that way–first I “saved money by doing the job myself,” and then I paid a lot more to a professional to fix what I made worse and then do the repair correctly.

These aren't mine, either, but they don't look much worse than mine.

These aren’t mine, either, but they don’t look much worse than mine.

After all that, the answer is pretty simple–I take the glasses to a shop in the mall tomorrow and have them fix it with professional tools. It meant no reading tonight. That was a big departure.

What I found interesting was the problem-solving process. It followed so many other problem-solving steps: first, astonishment at how the damage got so serious. Second, disbelief and anger. Even a flash of “why does this kind of thing have to happen to me when I am about to teach at an important out-of-town client?”  This was starting to look like a personality test more than a decision what to do with broken glasses.

Finally, a solution based on mistakes made in the past. Don’t try things without the tools you need if you don’t have the time or replacement pieces yourself. Leave the delicate work to the people with trained, specialized small-muscle control.

It’s how I approach creative problems, too. First a bit of panic, anger, and crankiness that I ruined a piece. Maybe a flash of inner critic telling me that other artists don’t make these mistakes. Then the recognition that I have the tools and the ability, but I have to use past mistakes to make the current piece I’m working on come to a satisfying conclusion.

That means admitting to past mistakes, figuring out what worked well and what did not, and repeat the thinking that brings out a simple, elegant solution. A creative lesson in a pair of bent glasses frames. Not such a bad price to pay.

-Quinn McDonald is glad she learned touch-typing at an early age, as she can’t see what she’s typing.


The Joy of Being Wrong

“Sometimes it hits me that I’m wrong about most things. About time. About my place in space. About the nature of the body. About the nature of the divine. About human nature. About what death is. About who I am and who my kids are. And about what the creek needs to support the salmon and all its visitors.

This journal page is made from pieces of journal art that didn't work--until it became a mosaic. Then it worked just fine.

This journal page is made from pieces of journal art that didn’t work–until it became a mosaic. Then it worked just fine.

But heavens, let’s not worry about being wrong! I’m gradually learning that, paradoxically, it’s the foolsgold–the blunderings, giving ups, breakdowns, in spite ofs, chance encounters, shatterings, letting gos, and mess-ups, that has led to most of the creativity in my life, not the sweet making of something beautiful, or “enlightened” inspiration, and certainly not feeling in control. It’s the opposites, listenings, buzz hums,  the falling (leaping) down the rabbit hole, the stepping through the looking glass, barefoot, with no suitcase, in new territory.”

–Susan G. Wooldridge, Foolsgold, p. 88.

After reading that, I began to wonder why it is that when we notice we are wrong, we are so concerned with having been wrong, instead of pleased and delighted in our ability to detect a mistake and fix or change it. Of course, it’s not great to be wrong at work, or make a decision that causes harm, but for many of our decisions, it’s not a matter of life or death, but a matter of learning.

-Quinn McDonald learns from being wrong. It’s not always fun, but it’s always a step forward. Which she loves.

Fixing Your Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. When we make them, we often hide them, lie about them, or cover them up.  Instead of  spinning, hiding, or rationalizing a mistake, make it serve you. It’s not easy, but you can face and fix mistakes, then grow from them.

Here’s the step-by-step to face and fix mistakes:

eraser1. See the mistake. This sounds obvious, but the reason we make mistakes is  we don’t see it for what it is. We notice a mistake and immediately stop thinking about it, and focus instead on hiding it. That’s the dangerous part. See the mistake for what it is–a slip up you made because you drew the wrong conclusion, thought something wrong was right, or raced ahead too fast. If you don’t know what you did wrong, there is no second step.

2. Acknowledge your mistake. This is your mistake. Own it. You can’t fix it if you don’t own it. What is the root cause of the mistake–shortcuts, overwork, the wrong process? Find how it went wrong and you’ll know why it went wrong.

3. Develop a solution. Once you know how and why the mistake happened, figure out a solution that solves it. You are the only person who can do the best job of fixing your own mistake. You have more information than anyone else about your mistake. This should take minutes, not days. The solution may have several steps that need to take place over days, but you have to have a reasonable fix in place quickly.

4. Alert your boss first, team members second. Your boss needs to know about major mistakes before your team members. Smaller mistakes that your team members can fix in their normal workday can be fixed at that level. Going to your boss isn’t a fun task, which is exactly why you developed the solution before you left your office. If you dump the problem on the boss’s desk, you will be creating a panic situation and you will be responsible for using the boss’s fix. Your answer, because you are closer to the problem, is going to work better.

5. Know how to prevent the mistake. Besides acknowledging responsibility and knowing how to fix the mistake, you have to know how to prevent it from happening again. If your mistake is an emergency, this step needs to happen after the emergency is over. Preventing mistakes is the part where overwork– too many projects to be completed in not enough time–comes in. You can point out that you are concentrating on too many priorities and ask your boss to prioritize your workload. If you think everything is the same level of importance, you are headed for trouble. And you’ll be wrong. Not everything is equally important. That’s the short answer that leads to a big failure. Whether you need training, better communication, more responsibility, more authority and less responsibility, this is the time to point it out in a clear, tactful way.

—Quinn McDonald has made her share of mistakes. She developed the process of fixing them from experience. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment, says Mullah Nasiruddin.

Standing in Your Own Light

First: Thanks to all of you who have said kind, supportive, wonderful things about my 1,500 blog posts. It feels big and I’m proud. There would be no blog without readers and those who leave comments.

For about 12 hours yesterday, WordPress was not accessible to me–I couldn’t get to the blog or read the comments. So I’m a bit behind. Yes, there will still be a drawing, it will still be tonight (if I can get to the blog) but it will take a few days to answer all the comments.

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Many of the people who leave comments are artists. All of them are creative, even if they don’t believe it. My first reaction, when I finally could read the comments, was to explain to everyone who said something nice that they were wrong, that I don’t have a lot of energy, and I’m just a creative stumbler with a sense of humor.

And that would be a mistake. The same mistake many artists make. It’s hard to admit to your creativity. Hard to live up to big ideas. Strenuous to live up to your own expectations. But it’s important that you stand up and represent your own creativity. That you stand in your own light.

Never say “just” when you explain how you do your work. If you are a photographer you don’t “just” use a digital camera. If you are a book binder, you don’t “just” stitch folios together. Those are skills you learned and got good at over time. Don’t diminish your skills. You worked hard for them. Explain them with dignity. Your soul deserves that.

When someone offers a compliment, don’t talk about your mistakes. So many artists I praise, immediately show me the mistake in the piece, the error in their plan, the flaw in their thinking. Those mistakes, flaws and error made that piece the thing of beauty (is a joy forever, thank you John Keats). You did all the work–from concept to final polish. The mistakes you made are your private learning tool, and don’t need to be shown to everyone who likes the final product. Knowing your mistakes doesn’t enhance their experience.

Work deeply, learn about yourself, and be proud of what you’ve learned. That’s the difference between an artist who keeps going and one who quits, disappointed in life.

Quinn McDonald is a writer who is working on her second book, The Inner Hero Art Journal: Mixed Media Messages to Your Inner Critic.

Knowing When it’s Time to Quit

There’s a mistake I make over and over in my life–I don’t know when to quit. I’ll press on with a project even though I’m tired, cranky, and no longer paying close attention.  It’s the road to perdition, clearly marked, and I’m driving the express train. But I won’t quit. I keep thinking that in the next minute, I will finish the project, solve the problem, complete the task.

A badly tangled thread diagram from an H-P article entitled, Ropes, Strings, Threads,

It doesn’t work that way. Right at the moment when the end is brushing my fingertips, almost in my grasp,  something goes wrong. Tonight the just-repaired part on the sewing machine failed again. I was stitching the last piece of a card I had promised to get in the mail tomorrow, and the needle flew out of the holder, followed by the thread manager and the entire chunk of sewing machine that holds the needle and the thread tender.  It tore a hole in the card. The one I’d been working on for two hours. The one you are not seeing a picture of.

I could give you a hundred other examples. When I made jewelry, I would press ahead to finish a clasp, even if I knew it required more thought than I had left. The instant I focused on the clasp, something would go wrong, and the necklace–a piece of intricate engineering–would be ruined. I did this more than once, more than a dozen times. I’d recognize the situation and think, “it will be different this time.” It was not.

It’s a combination of wanting to complete something ahead of deadline, the need to be done with a project I’ve been working on too long, and the bad decisions made when I’m overtired. It’s rooted in the idea that if I push harder I will do more than if I go to bed. It’s the nasty Catholic-school idea that you don’t rest until your work is done, no matter how tired you are. And I’m not even Catholic.

I want to find that moment I need to quit. Because I keep overshooting it,

Susan Long from Momma Mindy's Moments.

wasting too much time doing over what I should have quit doing while I was ahead.

Tonight, I think I found the answer. The time to quit is long before I make the mistake. I keep thinking I need to stop right before the mistake. But that’s not it. The time to stop is while everything is still going well. Before tired becomes exhaustion. It’s so counter-intuitive. We don’t go to bed when we are tired, we fall asleep in front of the TV and get up at 2 in the morning, drag ourselves to bed and find our eyes open and our weariness gone. The next day, our eyes feel like they’ve been rolled in panko crumbs and placed on the grill.

The time to quit a project is while it’s still appealing, before it becomes a chore. Yes, there are times to press ahead, but when you grimly fixate on getting it over and done with, you have jumped the shark. (Another example of not knowing when to quit.)

And instead of finding the perfect ending here, I’m going to bed. Before I wreck it. Feel free to give an example of your own.

Quinn McDonald is slowly learning when she’s had enough and needs to quit for the night. Slowly.

Making the Same Mistake

You’ve heard it a million times: “It’s OK to make a mistake, but never make the same mistake twice!” Or “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” One of the giant myths we love to believe is that we make a mistake only once.

Buster no longer eats flowers. Why not? Because I no longer put flowers anywhere he can find them or climb to them. I finally changed, as he would not.

It’s simply not true. We not only repeat mistakes, we repeat them most of our lives. We all know the woman who has dated the same kind of man all her life. Falls for the same type, the same profession, the same opposite-to-hers values. We wonder why she does that as we stride into Starbucks and order “the usual.”

We are creatures of habit and most of us don’t like change. We do the same thing over and over because we know how to do it that way. Even though we know the definition of insanity, we keep hoping for different results.

Change is hard. It’s great the first three days when we are filled with resolve and motivation. Then our friends begin to tell us they like us the way we are. Or our family hurls the ultimate insult at us: I don’t know who you are anymore, you’ve changed!

Well, I hope so. I’d be really bored with someone who didn’t change over a whole life. I sincerely hope we grow, we learn, we adapt, we re-invent. Because making the same mistake over and over again, and hoping for growth anyway is a new definition for insanity.

We are going to make the same mistake over and over unless we take a look at the reason for the mistake, and change our habits. It’s hard, really hard to stop making the same mistake over and over again.  But it also painful to keep making the same mistake–even if we do it in new and inventive ways.

That’s why having a coach is useful. They encourage you to create a new vision and a new way, and they hold you accountable for walking toward the goal. And then, they walk with you, because change is not easy and making mistakes is painful.

Quinn McDonald still takes on too much work and needs more sleep. She and her coach are working on it.