Great leaders publicly take responsibility for failures within their organization. They should, after all – a mistake slipped through the cracks of a structure that they were responsible for building, sealing and fortifying. While an architect or carpenter actually built the castle, it came from an idea or plan the king or queen envisioned. Many failures in construction stem from failures in design. Brick and mortar analogy aside, leaders may not directly cause mistakes – but they are accountable. Even with a perfect plan or structure in place, failure within remains a failure within. Something could have been done by someone to prevent it. Most people cannot handle or admit to their own mistakes. But someone needs to. Someone needs to flag a mistake and help everyone learn from it. Not by blame or pointing fingers, but by throwing themselves under a bus to show everyone that humility can solve problems and teach lessons. Those of us who know we actually made the mistake will walk out the door with a shred of guilt and a valuable learning experience.
People who make mistakes and take them to heart spend enough time beating themselves up over it. It rarely makes sense to me to beat them up further. Punishment, scolding or worse can only make you look like a heartless and inconsiderate fool. If the mistaker openly acknowledges his or her mistake and you understand how the mistake was made, forgive the person and work together to find a solution.
People who make mistakes without notice or care do not deserve the same level of forgiveness. Far more fair to forgive a blooper than sheer ignorance and neglect. When running an organization, tolerance for miscalculations herein can only go so far. Make little room for bad attitudes, denial or blame. If a member of your team cannot accept mistakes as valuable learning or growing experiences, you do not want him or her on the team.
I’m not very good at this. I start so many projects that never see the light of day. I’m great at starting things; not so great at finishing them. What’s worse? I can never seem to let failed projects die. They pile on my desk and continue to distract me from the latest and greatest. I tell myself, “Maybe someday I’ll crack the code to this one and solve it.” But that hasn’t happened yet. Not for a single project. Only the current, active and relevant projects of mine tend to succeed.
I think you can ‘finish’ incomplete projects. You can repackage them as failures and label the package with lessons learned. That way, reminders of that project call back to useful takeaways instead of a meandering nostalgia. You can consolidate the evidence and pack it into a box. You may even need to set the box free. I’ve burned notes, posted rough drafts to the internet, buried files on a hard drive and given mementos away. I routinely publish and share my failures with the world to save people from making the same mistakes. Other times, I just hit the delete key.
More often than not, it’s better to let go. Think about it like you’re shedding baggage – not taking your pet out back and shooting it. Losing weight is a good thing. Losing distractions, even by your own creation, can be great for you, too.
What’s the value of stumbling through life and making mistakes if you do not make an active effort to record and study lessons learned? I keep a small Moleskine, Evernote or Google Docs notebook at my fingertips at all times. I take note of bad days, obstacles, discoveries, conversations, ideas and victories (for the record, Android dictation thought I said “a pekingese”). Ninety percent of this blog comes from notes I take day-to-day.
That said, notes are not enough. If you do not organize, consolidate or review your notes, what’s the point of having them at all? In practice, I tend to reduce pages-upon-pages into single fortune cookie-sized takeaways. I put them on sticky notes in discrete places that perpetually inform my decisions and the quality of my day.
Chronicle, recycle and learn from the past. It can sugar-coat your life journey as a personal parable.
Contemporary academia leaves little to no room for error. With grades and tuition on the line, failure is not acceptable. We were all raised to think this way, perhaps the single greatest fault of contemporary education. Individuals deeply ingrained in the academic world have even less tolerance for failure. You cannot genuinely innovate when you need to ask permission for everything or need to meet a rubric. We need to have freedom – permission to make mistakes – before we can truly change the world.
Seth Godin calls this ‘guts’ – a trait far more admirable than perfectionism or a no-tolerance policy. We can all respect high batting averages; we cannot always respect the methods behind high batting averages. At the end of the day, we pay more attention to home runs than high batting averages anyway. To hit home runs? Swing with everything you’ve got – even at the risk of missing the ball. You may lose the game if you miss, but you cannot win unless you swing.
We have explicit memory for a reason. Where most animals only have implicit memory for motor skills, human beings have a declarative memory that helps us record autobiographical, semantic and episodic information. We can remember how to do more than just walk and eat. We developed these skills to gain a competitive advantage against other species and humans who could not share our memories and experiences past. Simply put: “I learned things through experience that you do not know and that makes me better than you.” In a gnarly world of job applications and qualifications, “experience” means everything.
Experience does not end in employment land. Street smarts come from street experiences. Book smarts come from book experiences. We consume life and literature everyday, and much of what we consume gets logged in our brains.
Individuals often resist dwelling or revisiting bad experiences or periods of shame. They block episodes from memory, drink them away or refuse to share them with others. That’s a waste. While I understand that mistakes are not necessarily glamorous things to share with the public, you have an opportunity to help close friends and family learn from your mistakes. You can contribute to a collective memory and help the species last. We have memories for a reason – do not waste them. And do not let them die with you. Do not run from the past; embrace it as a gift. Any memory, good or bad, makes you the character that you are and gives you a competitive advantage in some way. Learn to stop hiding and love the past.