I love mistakes. Oh don’t get me wrong, I hate making mistakes. But mistakes themselves: I see them as learning opportunities. Whether it’s a typo in a document or sending an email to the wrong person because their first name is the same as the person you were supposed to send to, these are all things that make me realize: I’m not perfect and there’s something here I can learn from.
Let me share a few of the biggest mistakes I’ve made:
- I had an illness that I ignored, mostly because there wasn’t any pain or annoyance. When I went to the doctor, he asked me why I waited so long to see him – only then I realized it was an illness that could be serious if left alone.
- I failed to negotiate whenever I switch jobs. Although my career has been a slow upward trajectory, I have a feeling it could have gone up faster if I believed in myself and pushed a little harder on the offers.
- I left my gym keys on my water bottle, which was taken from me while I was working out and not paying attention. The criminal got into my locker, stole my phone and wallet, and that was a major inconvenience.
- While on a travel project, I left my wallet at home. It was a huge hassle checking into the hotel as I needed someone else to pay and verify my identity. My partner also had to ship my wallet to me.
I have learned from each mistake:
- Your health is the most important thing. If you aren’t healthy, you can’t do anything, so take care of yourself first.
- Believe in yourself. Believe in the value you bring to others. Don’t shortchange your work or your value.
- Keep anything valuable on your body at all times. Or at the very least, don’t bring valuables with you while going to public places that aren’t always secure.
- Check and double check that you have everything you need before traveling. Develop a checklist, and use it each time.
These lessons seem obvious even if you haven’t made the same mistakes I have, but here’s the great thing about making a mistake: it solidifies the lesson in your mind.
Learning from your mistakes isn’t easy. But since I’ve made so many mistakes, I’m going to share with you the six steps I take to learn from my mistakes. Maybe you already do these but I’m hoping I can share one or two steps to help you on your journey to continuous improvement.
1. Acknowledge a mistake was made
When you were a child, you didn’t want to get on your parent’s bad side. So when bad things happened, and your parents asked you what happened, you never wanted to admit to your mistake. You would rather blame someone else. Or blame an external circumstance.
When you become older, you might rely on the same strategies, and they might work. But honestly, the best thing is to be true to yourself and to admit that you made a mistake if you made one. Nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes all the time. And when you acknowledge it was you that made the mistake, you can then move on from identifying the guilty person and moving the blame to them, to fixing the mistake and then identifying how you can be better in the future.
2. Own the mistake
Jocko Willink, in his book, Extreme Ownership, talks about the idea of owning your team’s mistakes as a leader. Sure, maybe it was a team member who forgot their responsibility. Or they made a blatant mistake in an important document you sent out to executives. The mistakes your team makes are, Jocko says, your mistakes. You weren’t clear on each team member’s role and responsibility. Or you didn’t provide the training and expectations needed for that important document.
This overlaps with step 1 – if you are in a leadership role and someone on your team made a mistake, it’s yours to own. Here’s the interesting thing: when you own your team’s mistakes, your team does everything they can to not make the same (or different) mistakes in the future. They have psychological safety in tackling stretch goals: things that may not work.
3. Fix the mistake
Depending on the mistake, this may be step 1 – for example, if your home was broken into because someone left the garage door open, you will want to make sure you fix your garage door and secure your home first before identifying who made the mistake.
When you don’t know how to fix the mistake, consult with others. Search YouTube for handy videos. Search forums like Reddit for those with similar experiences. Sometimes, it even helps to consult with others even if you know how to fix the mistake because you can learn new solutions.
4. Identify how the mistake was made
In IT, there’s a concept called ‘root cause analysis’. For example, when your browser doesn’t work, people try things like restarting the browser, opening up a different website, or restarting your computer. Some of these things might fix the problem, but if the problem comes up again, it could mean you never addressed the root cause (for example, that your laptop is old and doesn’t connect to the internet well).
Another example is someone presents the wrong data to the executives, which leads to the executives making the wrong decision. You could fix the data in that presentation, but then you find that future presentations also have the same mistake. It means you didn’t fix the root cause, which may be that the data was bad in the first place or that the person presenting doesn’t have the right skills or experience to analyze the data. Not fixing the root cause means that the problem will just come up again in the future.
Identifying, and fixing the root cause is the best way to address mistakes so that they do not come up again.
5. Understand what decisions you made that led to the mistake
One takeaway from Annie Duke’s book How to Decide: a good outcome does not mean a good decision was made. Case in point: you decide to run the red light and you don’t get into or cause any accidents. You made it out alive so you reason you made an excellent decision.
Once a mistake has been made, how do you understand the decisions that led to the mistake?
Work backwards from the outcome. What immediate action led to the mistake? Then, what actions and steps led to that immediate action? What were the decision points? Why did you decide the way you decided? What information was available to you? What information do you now know? Would you have made the same decision knowing what you know now? Could you have gotten more information before deciding? Was it feasible to do so?
6. Refine your principles
When Ray Dalio published his book Principles, I was excited to learn about the specific principles he has learned and refined over his life to lead his life. The book was instead a look into Ray’s process for how he comes up with principles.
Essentially, it’s a combination of experience, experimenting, making mistakes, and reflecting.
The first thing to do, before refining your principles, is to outline what principles you follow. For example, one principle could be “don’t go shopping while you’re hungry because you make bad decisions about food when you are hungry”. It’s a principle I follow because I had to learn the hard way about shopping while hungry (you realize everything looks good).
We all develop principles for life, work, family, and other areas of our lives that we implicitly believe or follow. These principles help us make better decisions, because the principle makes it easier to cut through the noise and look at what’s important.
7. Develop mitigation strategies
As a project manager, you and your project team identify risks that could occur. These are things that could throw the project off track – sometimes it’s a people issue, it could be a scope issue, supplier delays, anything that has a realistic chance where the project could go off the rails. There are four different ways to mitigate these risks, and the same mitigation strategies can be applied to (future) mistakes:
- Mitigate – mitigating a risk means reducing the impact the risk has on a project. In the same way, you can mitigate mistakes. If you know one of your team members is prone to showing up late to presentations, you can have them present something near the end of your presentation so that your presentation doesn’t hinge on their timely attendance. That way, if a mistake happens, the mistake’s impact is lessened.
- Transfer – can’t reduce the probability or the impact of the mistake occurring? You can transfer the mistake to someone else – in general, transferring means you pay another organization to make and handle the mistake for you.
- Avoid – sometimes, a risk has a big impact, but you can reduce the probability of it occurring. You can avoid mistakes in the same way: if you know you tend to write emails with typos, why not avoid emails altogether so you don’t have typos?
- Accept – Lastly, if a mistake isn’t likely to occur and it’s impact isn’t big, you can accept that you will make a mistake. Even if a mistake occurs (for example, eating a bad grape), it’s not likely to lead to any serious consequences.
In general, I will use one of these mitigation strategies to develop a system so I minimize the chances of mistakes happening in the future.
One example from my life: I used to, when sending emails in Outlook, type a few letters in the To and CC fields and have Outlook auto complete emails. But when you’re emailing as many times as I did as a management consultant, you can sometimes mix up internal and external people in your emails. Sometimes, I would send emails to the wrong person. The worst was sending an email meant for one client to another client. So after making this mistake, I realized I was operating on autopilot and not checking the email field as closely as I should be. Therefore, I turned off the auto-complete functionality in Outlook and now I manually type all emails. I find manually typing emails increases my awareness of who I am sending emails to and also makes me carefully consider whether I need to send emails to the individuals or not.
8. Develop a failure resume
Tina Seelig, author of What I wish I knew in my 20s, talks about the concept of developing a failure resume. A resume is a list of all of your experiences and accomplishments; a failure resume is a list of all the things you failed at but learned from. I have a failure resume I developed and from time to time, I look at my failure resume to remind myself of the lessons I learned from my mistakes.
The good thing about the failure resume is nobody sees it but you. It’s like a journal in a way – it allows you to reflect on your mistakes privately in a safe environment. Writing your failure down and reflecting on it is also better than airing it with friends or your partner – there’s no judgment or criticism unless it’s from yourself.