The Mistake Contradiction

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In Better by Mistake, Alina Tugend highlights the contradiction between two attitudes concerning mistakes: one the one hand, we encourage people to welcome mistakes as learning opportunities, while on a daily basis most people try to avoid making mistakes, often because they fear punishment. Our fear of being punished if we make mistakes starts young: parents and teachers tell us there is a right and wrong way to do things and if we choose the latter, we lose. In continues through our lives.  Mistakes you make may be the reason for losing out on the better job, college date, etc. So, you actively seek to avoid mistakes – especially those that are brought to the attention of people as an indicator of “low performanceâ€.

Yet, many innovations (e.g., penicillin, Viagra, Post-it notes, etc.) are the result of mistakes and being opened to learn from the experience. Indeed, many leaders, especially Venture Capitalists, would prefer a serial entrepreneur who also failed than one has not had those experiences.

Indeed, a study of corporate attitudes toward creativity/innovation, discovered that while many companies advocate that its people engage in practices that might lead to innovative breakthroughs, they only rewarded those that succeeded.

How do you resolve the tension in your life and workplace?  People need to be accountable for mistakes that hurt people; there is no free pass to screw up all over the place. But judging by results only limits your ability to learn from the process behind the decision-making. We can’t learn from mistakes unless we create a culture which focuses less on the outcome and more on the process. We need to figure out why the mistake was made and make the decisions regarding consequences based on our analysis. In other words, Communication about the process is key to learning from mistakes rather than just focus on results.

Two stories make this point. A person in a multi-million dollar corporation once made a mistake that cost the company $10M. He knew there should be consequences; so he visited the CEO’s office saying “I guess you want my letter of resignation, due to my mistake.†The CEO responded, “Not at all. We just spent $10M to give you a valuable lesson: capitalize on it.â€

Contrast this experience with that of students in a seventh grade science class who were told to put a note on their desk which they should read before ever speaking in class: “Is this a stupid question?†As you can imagine, very, very few questions were ever asked.

What’s your attitude toward mistakes – do you make it acceptable to make them so they can be learning experiences or do you discourage people from making mistakes now –  and possibly for a lifetime?  Let us know.

Alina Tugend  Better by Mistake