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Mistakes are expensive.
A missing comma cost one company $5 million, a measurement miscommunication caused NASA to lose a $125 million satellite, and a simple typo caused one Japanese company to accidentally sell 610,000 shares of stock for one yen rather than one share at 610,000 yen. However, aside from the public embarrassment, all of these mistakes have one thing in common — they’ll never happen again.
Because learning from a mistake is priceless.
While the mistakes we make in our day-to-day lives may not be quite so explosive, they will happen nonetheless. As leaders, we have to reframe what a mistake means. It is not a shameful failure to be hidden away, but rather a part of the natural iterative process. Mistakes are another opportunity to learn and are crucial elements of the path to success.
Face the music
Everyone makes mistakes, and none are worth hiding. While admitting to a mistake may bring a brief moment of embarrassment, it is often far more damaging to your reputation to pretend like it never happened.
Consider the story of museum workers who accidentally broke the beard off Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial mask and later faced trial for trying to cover up their mistake by clumsily gluing it back on. Had they simply acknowledged the accident and sought the help of experienced restoration experts, irreparable damage to a priceless artifact could have been avoided.
Admitting a mistake is the fastest path to making it better. Transparency will allow you to get the help you need to find a solution. Denying a mistake or passing the blame can quickly shift the mistake from an addressable accident to an emotionally-charged drama worthy of a Hulu series when the truth comes out.
No error is big enough to risk our integrity or the trust we’ve established with colleagues in order to hide our role in it. Once, we nearly terminated a trusted external partner for covering up a situation we felt we should have been apprised of right away. It was a true human error — opening a phony email that was nearly impossible to discern as fake — but our partner, with the best of intentions, decided as a team to keep the secret until they made good on it. We didn’t learn of the situation until months later when they finally determined it could not be solved. As a company, we were more disturbed by the fact that people we trusted intentionally withheld information that threatened our bottom line than we were by the challenge the situation posed. The true failure was their dishonesty, not the original error.
While we ultimately forgave the partner, I realized that many people avoid raising an issue for shame or fear of actions we might take given our disapproval. But we cannot allow our fear to get in the way of owning the mistake and moving forward.
Imposter syndrome plays a role here too: Many worry that a mistake will expose them as the “fraud” they’ve been all along. A mistake does not mean you are a failure or that all of your past accomplishments are null and void. We are all human, and mistakes will occur. It is how we address them that determines the outcome.
Mistakes are the best teachers
In the field of artificial intelligence, one of the fundamental concepts of machine learning is figuring out all the ways something doesn’t work in order to find the one way that does. When allowing a robot to teach itself how to walk, MIT researchers observed the AI iterating upon various failed attempts as it eliminated ineffective techniques and built a library of knowledge to apply toward eventual success. It is not so very different for people.
For example, we have a steady stream of data in digital-media campaigns that tell us which tactics are working better than others. If we set up our marketing programs and then ignored this data, we would be missing the chance to learn how to better connect with our audience. Instead, we pay attention to the data and openly share what we ought to start, stop or continue in order to stay in a place of continuous optimization. We don’t intentionally make mistakes, but often there are gaps in our knowledge at the start that get filled in over time. It’s those nuances and key insights that make our programs exceptional.
Mistakes are a natural part of the growth process, and they aren’t to be feared or shamed. In fact, they are vital tools. Each mistake is a teacher, deepening our knowledge and optimizing our outcomes.
Today’s success is tomorrow’s failure
The steam engine powered the Industrial Revolution before it became obsolete. The first personal computers that launched the desktop revolution and propelled mankind into the information age are now seen as quaint relics of a bygone era. The first VCRs ushered in a new era of video quality but now pale in comparison to the 4K digital clarity we have today. All of these things achieved great success in their time but would be considered abject failures if someone tried to market them today.
Success is a continuum. We succeed and we fail, then we succeed and fail again. When we prioritize growth over ego, we are able to utilize our failures to propel us into the future — we fail and “learn forward.” We begin to understand that the biggest challenges can often produce the most significant opportunities while our failures polish perspectives and add nuance to our understanding.
We cannot use our mistakes to move forward if we are not willing to take responsibility for them in the first place. Own your mistakes and failures, navigate the consequences and assess how you can apply what you’ve learned to bring you further the next time.
Win or learn
Success and failure are inexorably linked, and learning from both is the key to unlocking continuous improvement and growth. In my work, we have implemented a mantra of “win or learn.” We will not win every time; mistakes and setbacks are inevitable. What matters is that we provide a safe environment for mistakes to occur and then encourage learning and reflection in their aftermath.
When we prioritize emotional intelligence and growth over ego and power, we are better able to accept responsibility for our actions and glean insights that propel us forward. Playing the blame game tends to end poorly, but owning our mistakes allows us to contemplate what we can do differently to address challenges and move everyone into the future.