I am a compulsive perfectionist in many areas of my life, which is very difficult for me because I have never once been perfect. This becomes particularly challenging when it comes to career development and my work, but like a good Millennial, I don’t blame myself for my perfectionist ways. I blame the system.
From grade school onward, students are rewarded for being right and are told that wrongness is the path to certain doom. Right and wrong are taught to be binary, and only one will lead to success. This is a terrible thing to be taught.
Spencer Silver, a researcher at the 3M Laboratories, was trying to make a new, stronger adhesive, but what he created was actually weaker than what already existed. For years it sat around as a useless product. By all accounts, he had failed. Then one day Art Fry had the idea to slap that stuff onto some paper and call it a Post-it Note.
Mistakes have created all kinds of cool things: penicillin, the Slinky and the microwave, to name a few. More than helping us discover great new things, mistakes help us learn, whether it’s knowing not to do something again or encouraging us to look at it from a different perspective.
Obviously there are times for throwing caution to the wind and there are times when you should try very hard not to make mistakes. Not having enough lifeboats on the Titanic? That was a pretty big mistake. Napoleon thinking he could invade Russia in the winter? Not a great choice. But when it comes to our work, mistakes have huge potential to help us grow into far better humans.
Here’s my quick little guide for getting the most out of your mistakes.
1. Evaluate the mistake and take appropriate action.
Is this a little oopsie that you can fix, apologize for and move on with, or do you need to do a deep evaluation of the situation? Can you make sure this kind of mistake doesn’t happen again by putting a reminder in your phone, or do processes need to be re-evaluated?
2. Don’t take it personally.
It’s no use crying over spilled milk. Clichés like this exist for a reason. Sometimes failure is unavoidable, and sometimes failure is the direct result of our own actions. Either way, wallowing in self-pity won’t get you very far. You need to remember that even if your actions may have resulted in a failure, YOU are not a failure. You are wonderful and awesome and full of potential, and if you approach a mistake from a negative, accusatory perspective, you won’t get to focus on the opportunity that the mistake could bring. Which leads me to #3…
3. Find the opportunity.
There is no mistake that cannot yield a positive if you commit to learning—really learning—from it. Sometimes you find a better way to accomplish your goal. Other times, you’ll realize that the mistake has opened new doors or eliminated options so you can make a more informed decision next time. Maybe you accidentally made Post-it Notes instead of super-strong glue. Look for these things and capitalize on them.
4. Continuously monitor your progress.
Are you making the same mistakes over and over? Are people getting frustrated with you because you keep messing things up? Just feel like you can’t get something right? It’s time to figure out why. Maybe you’re not getting the support and training you need. Maybe you need to figure out a process for yourself so you feel confident that you can nail it every time. Be conscious.
5. Find an employer who knows what to do with mistakes.
This is a trickier one, but it’s something I think we should all be thinking about when starting a new job. When you make a mistake (and you will), how will your employer handle the situation? A good manager should be paying attention and looking for the opportunity, just like you should be. They should allow you to fix it and then trust that you’ll be striving for the best possible outcome.
6. Jump in.
Listening to your fear of failure is the best way to get absolutely nothing done. If you’re sitting at home, unemployed, and not applying for jobs because you’re worried you might mess up, it’s time for a reality check. You will probably mess up (a bunch), and you’ll learn from it (a bunch). Get your hands dirty and celebrate your failures.
The world is an uncertain place. No matter how well you plan something out, and no matter how sure you are that you will not make a mistake, you can never know what the outcomes of your actions will be. The world exists today because of continuous change. Get on board that little revolving blue dot and see where it takes you.
Photo #1 By a passenger of the Carpathia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo#2 By Shereen Zink
Photo #3 By NASA (NASA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons