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Mistakes as Professional Development

This morning I realized that I haven't had any big flameouts in my career. No major mistakes, no monumental screw-ups.

This isn't because I'm so perfect. It's because I haven't taken any huge risks. I go out on a limb a little ways, sure, but I'm always within my safety zone, working WITH a net.

I thought about this while reading Drucker's Take on Making Mistakes:

"Nobody learns except by making mistakes," Drucker wrote in his 1954 landmark book, The Practice of Management. "The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make—for the more new things he will try. I would never promote a man into a top-level job who has not made mistakes, and big ones at that. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre. Worse still, not having made mistakes he will not have learned how to spot them early and how to correct them."

The language is sexist, but the message is decidedly not. Big mistakes are a sign of growth and risk-taking. Of course, they must be tempered by successes, too, but if you're always worried about success, you're guaranteed to only nibble at the edges of your potential. You will stick with what's safe, with what you KNOW you can do, rather than going with what you have the potential to do.

Strangely, I've made a number of mistakes in my personal life and these major stumbles have been the greatest source of growth and learning for me. The trouble is, I don't seem to have made the leap from the personal to the professional. Not sure why.

Coincidentally (or maybe not--this always happens to me online), Tim Ferris has an article on why bigger goals mean less competition. It's really about having the courage to take on "impossible" tasks in part because they are more inspiring to achieve and because you'll probably be on your own in giving them a shot.

It’s lonely at the top. 99% of the world is convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre middle-ground. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming. It is easier to raise $10,000,000 than it is $1,000,000. It is easier to pick up the one perfect 10 in the bar than the five 8s.

If you are insecure, guess what? The rest of the world is too. Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.

Unreasonable and unrealistic goals are easier to achieve for yet another reason. 

Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, goals restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel.

Last week I said that if you do not work on important problems, you will not do important work. I must amend that statement to say that if you do not make big mistakes, you are not doing important work either. This is true for both individuals and organizations.

So the question is, how can you (and I) start screwing up more?


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I totally agree with this article. The problem is: what if you work in a culture that absolutely cannot tolerate mistakes of any kind? You're likely to be risking your job. When we come to expect perfection from people, we no longer allow the luxury of learning from our mistakes.

Very true, Shannon--many of us work in cultures where mistakes are frowned upon. But then I think we have to ask ourselves if this is the best organizational culture for our own growth and learning.

I'm increasingly coming to the belief that the first thing we need to ask ourselves about where we work is how is it helping us prepare for the future? With absolutely no guarantee that a job will continue (even if we're perfect), if we're working in a culture that doesn't support our growth, then we're setting ourselves up for failure anyway. Is the money now worth not being prepared for other opportunities down the road? In the short term it may make sense for us to work in organizations that are not supportive of learning, but in the longer-term, that amounts to career suicide.

One of my favorite books is Tom Peters RE-IMAGINE! (2003). He is one of the few that can get away with posting a 1000 slide powerpoint and people actually check it out! His latest is at and has numerous slides on Failing for Success!

My first job was for a very old fashioned company with an MD who screamed at everyone. As a consequence, no-one ever wanted to carry the blame for anything and no-one ever took any risks. Until I came along. Wet behind the ears and invincible, I took a decision that nearly cost the company millions of Rands (which, even allowing for the poor currency was still a LOT of money). Everyone stood by and held their breath waiting for the man to scream and fire me. He laughed. "You could teach us Jews a thing or two about chutzpah!" he said and gave me a salary increase. I didn't learn a lot that was positive from that company, because of the poor management style and finger-pointing culture. But I've never forgotten that.

I know in my head that people are as lacking in certainty as I am, but I still need to accept that at a heart level and pluck up the courage to stand up and present at a conference. I've never yet had the courage to do that because I assume I don't know enough. Then I go there and listen to people tell me stuff I've known for ages. I really need to stop prevaricating and flipping DO it. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?

Britt--thanks for the resource--I agree that Tom Peters is great!

And Karyn, you DEFINITELY need to start presenting at a conference. Your knowledge and personality comes across so strongly in your blog posts and I can imagine that translating very well to conference presentations. You have a lot to share and you should get yourself out there and start doing it!

I enjoyed this post and realize that I don't make enough mistakes in my life and career. I also realized that mistakes are a part of life...literally. The reason that life succeeds so well is because it is constantly making mistakes in its genetic copying (mutation). This is the engine that drives evolution. It seems wired into our nature to make mistakes, and that is what changes us and makes us more successful as animals as well as people.

P.S. If you couldn't tell I just watched a history of life on earth on the history channel

Thanks for a great article. I think that knowing how to recover from mistakes is a true test of integrity and emotional intelligence. While everyone may not have the opportunity to make mistakes in your professional life in the workplace, I do think that you can take risks outside of the workplace. You can try volunteering and you can join a Toastmasters Club if you are afraid of public speaking like I am. There are several ways to take risks without putting your job on the line. There are many creative ways to take risks and test your limits.

Andy, you make a great point about mistakes being the engine of evolution--so true! And Vanessa, you're right that you can make mistakes in places other than work to test your limits, although I think that part of my point, too, is that if you're in a job where you really "can't" make mistakes, it might be a good idea to consider moving on-without mistakes, you won't evolve and grow on the job.

Kia ora Karyn!

I'm late, but I nevertheless agree with Michele that you should present at conference.

You say "What's the worst that could happen?" Well in the context of this post I'd say the worst thing that could happen is that you screw up and don't learn a thing from it.

But also in line with the sentiments expressed on this page, the best thing that could happen is that you screw up and learn a lot from the experience.

But having said that, I'm now not sure whether to wish you good luck with your first conference presentation or not :-)

Break a leg I suppose ;-)

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Michele, as we come to the close of our own latest life experiment and start a new one, I've gotten very behind on blog reading, and with you being so prolific and interesting, I feel doubly behind on commenting. Here's what's up with us.

In one of your own comments here you wrote "if we're working in a culture that doesn't support our growth, then we're setting ourselves up for failure anyway." Very profound and very challenging. We are crippled by our own desire for success, acceptance and shelter.

Over here we get reruns of old "3rd Rock from the Sun" sitcoms. John Lithgow's assessment of people's persistence at meaningless work in order to someday maybe fulfill a dream in their retirement, was summed up like this: "a job is like taking out a mortgage on one's life."

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