My three biggest mistakes at work and what I learned

One of my biggest pet peeves is having others cite some of my mistakes or failures in the past to use as arguments against why I should be doing things a certain way now. I’m not into history but one of the lessons that I learned while studying history in school (I supposed forced to learn may be a more appropriate way of describing it) is that history tends to repeat itself and that we can learn from the mistakes of the past.

A while ago, I remember reading from Tina Seelig, a Stanford professor and best-selling author, that while a lot of people keep resumes of their career and achievements, it can also be illuminating and insightful to keep what is called a ‘failure resume’ — that is, a way to note down your biggest screw-ups, mistakes, failures and what you learned from them. The following isn’t an exhaustive list but these are the ones that have resonated the most with me over the years.

Failure to be a professional at work

I used to work in Playland as a Rides Operator — it was my first ever job and while the work was quite tough (being out in the sun and smiling at customers all day drains you), it was something to keep me busy in the summer and get me out of the house.

On one of the rides that I was operating, we had a logbook where we kept entries of when we inspected the rollercoaster and who checked it as part of our general safety measures. For a while, we diligently kept notes in the logbook but many of us were in high school or university so we decided to have fun. I and another one of the operators started drawing pictures in the logbook and making fun of our coworkers. We didn’t think anything of it aside from the fact that it was quite entertaining at the time. Some time passed and as I am working the ride, one of the supervisors came up to me and told me to head to the office. I was not sure what was happening but it certainly was not good. They called me into the office and had the logbook in front of them. Unbeknownst to the operators, the Playland executive regularly reviewed safety items such as logbooks to make sure that safety checks were being done and when they had seen the drawings, they immediately were not happy. While we did not sign our names as part of the drawings, there were two drawings of three of the operators in particular and one of them was me. They asked me directly whether I had drawn in the logbook. At that moment, I’ll be honest — I thought about lying and saying that it wasn’t me. Another thought running through my head was that they would certainly talk to the other operators and ask them if they knew who had drawn those pictures in the logbook. I only took a few more seconds to admit that yes, I had written in the logbook and that it was wrong. As part of my transgression, I received a notice in my file. Yes I was young and stupid at the time but I learned something about the work that everyone should know: be a professional even if no one is watching.

Lack of focus

I also worked as a program coordinator for a university orientations program. My role would be technical in nature — I was responsible for making sure that students were sorted into the right groups, according to the program that they would enter in university and that e-mails were sent out to the students telling them what groups they are in. Much of this was managed in Excel spreadsheets and as I was working through and sorting the students in certain ways, I had mistakenly sorted without expanding the columns — messing up all of the students and the subsequent mailing list. Students were getting letters with the wrong student names and groups and phoning in and it was a huge catastrophe. At the time, it was such a simple mistake but a costly one — I was not paying attention while sorting and clicked on buttons automatically without really thinking about what I was doing. The lesson I learned here was to deeply focus at work — the core theme of a recent favourite read of mine: Cal Newport’s Deep Work. While this isn’t a review or a summary of the book, Cal argues that deep focused work is a skill that needs to be developed and will yield incredible results if the skill is honed. While I learned this earlier, it is still a skill that I need to practice. This is also one of the reasons why I try not to listen to music with lyrics at work (unless I’m doing something that does not require a lot of focus like repetitive tasks).

Failure to check for mistakes

While working for a client, I was trying to do an analysis of the annual costs of one of the client’s major assets. I remember reviewing the client’s documentation, finding certain numbers that I wanted and copying and pasting this into an Excel spreadsheet to conduct further analysis. At the time, my modus operandi at work was to move fast and break things and perhaps at the time, coming into my first project in consulting from the Government, I was not used to or even aware of the fact that mistakes were more costly in consulting.

Fast forward a week or two and I’m sitting in a client meeting room where we are holed up to do work. The other consultants get back from a meeting with the analysis that I had conducted and they remark that the numbers did not seem to add up at the meeting but that they had not done the analysis so they were not sure. They asked me to check the numbers again. As I check the numbers, my stomach drops. I realized that when I had copied and pasted in the numbers from the client documents, there were superscripts that I had also pasted in — so 20, for example, had become 201. I told my team members because that was the right thing to do and I felt the disappointment from the team over the fact that I had not checked the numbers carefully.

Two lessons here that I learned: Move fast, break things but check your workand Have a good manager to cover for you early on in your career.

In hindsight (and even sitting at my computer now), I shake my head at why I did not check the numbers. Even just a simple few seconds to double check the numbers would have saved me from the disappointment of my team. I think what really saved me was the fact that I had a good manager that covered for me. The partner on the file wanted heads chopped but my project manager had covered for me, knowing that it was one of my first few engagements and ultimately, everyone should be checking everyone’s work and not assuming that everything was correct. It’s one of the things that I try to do in my line of work as a manager now — I make sure that I check the work for those that are new to consulting but I also try to cover for my team (because that is the right thing to do as I had also learned from reading Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babi.

Do mistakes cost companies? Absolutely (and some more than others). Should you try to avoid mistakes at work? Yes, definitely. Are mistakes the worst things in the world? Sometimes they feel that way but the worst mistake is repeating mistakes that you’ve made in the past or not learning from them. Maybe it’s time to keep a failure resume?

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