“Tim” told me about a mistake he made this week. He’d driven out to a suburb for a meeting only to discover after he got there that he had arrived a day early. It seemed he’d not checked his calendar that morning because he was certain he had the right day. He had lost an hour of work time driving back and forth and he was mad at himself. “That was just stupid”, he told me.
Actually, he lost more than that hour of driving. He spent additional time and energy calling himself names, thinking about what he hadn’t gotten done, and worrying about what it meant that he had made that mistake (“Am I losing it?!”). Then it took even more time to get his focus back to what he had been working on. So by dwelling on all the negatives and potential negatives of his mistake, Tim compounded the damage of it.
Tim’s is a common reaction to making mistakes in our culture. And it’s an unfortunate one. It not only wastes time and focus, it prevents us from taking advantage of our mistakes.
So what should you do to recover when you make a mistake? There are three levels of mastery of the Art of Recovering From Mistakes.
Novice mistake recovery
The beginner level of recovering from mistakes involves a quick shrug of the shoulders, a message of “Oh well, everyone makes mistakes,” and getting back to business. When you do this you limit the fallout from your mistake to just the mistake itself. But there is so much more you can do.
Advanced mistake recovery
At the advanced level of recovering from mistakes you use the mistake to improve yourself or your situation. Yes, this means looking at your mistake as a “learning experience”. Start by asking yourself nuts-and-bolts process questions like “What led me to do this?” and “What could I do differently?”. These kinds of questions could help you put in place new procedures to streamline your work, for example. When Tim thought about why he didn’t check his calendar, he realized that it was somewhat inconvenient to access it during his morning routine. That started him thinking of ways to make it easier to check first thing in the morning. He also realized that he doesn’t have enough activities on it that are exciting to him (ever had one of those “too many boring meetings” calendars before?). He’s already gearing up to do more networking with people and companies he is interested in, so he will “redouble his efforts” to spice up his calendar with more interesting events.
Expert mistake recovery
Finally, we get to the mastery level. A master in the Art of Recovering From Mistakes looks at the mistake as a something that will lead to a good result. The bigger the problem the greater the opportunity for improvement.
We’ve all heard of Posttraumatic Stress, in which someone is so overwhelmed by a life-threatening experience that their ability to cope in daily life after the experience is seriously compromised. There is a lesser-known reaction to highly challenging experiences called Posttraumatic Growth, which has been getting more study since the 1990’s. In Posttraumatic Growth, the person undergoes positive changes from their very difficult circumstances, such as reshuffling their priorities, improvements in their close relationships, and increased belief in their own abilities.
How would such growth look in a career or business context? Think about the employee who gets fired. Research has found that the same part of the brain that reacts to mortal danger also responds to financial losses, so the fallout from losing your job can be highly traumatic. And yet we’ve all heard of someone who said that getting fired, or laid off, was the best thing that could have happened to them. They went back for new training to get a higher-paying job, discovered a career that was more fulfilling, or finally started that business they had been dreaming about for so long.
How do you turn a very difficult circumstance—or even a huge mistake of your own making—into an opportunity for growth like this? You need to ask yourself some big questions: What can I learn from this? What does this mean for me? Don’t get stuck on the cheap answers like “I’m a loser” or “my boss is always out to get me.” Push yourself. Ask “What good can I make come out of this.” And give yourself time. Come back to these questions over the next few weeks and even months. The answers can and do lead to profound changes for the better.
Tom and Ray’s Big Mistake
Tom and Ray Magliozzi (aka Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers of NPR’s Car Talk) had a brilliant idea: they opened a do-it-yourself car repair shop in the ‘70s called Hacker’s Haven, renting space and tools to people who wanted to work on their own cars. It was supposed to earn them millions. It didn’t. It wasn’t even profitable So it was a mistake, right?
Not so fast. Their experience with Hacker’s Haven led Tom to be invited to be part of a panel discussing car repair on the local Boston NPR affiliate. Only Tom showed up, and he took over the show. From that, the two brothers got a local radio show they did for years, then were asked to contribute weekly to a national NPR show, and finally were given their own weekly national show. (Sadly, they are retiring from Car Talk this year. Happily, NPR will continue to distribute their old weekly shows for the indefinite future.) The Magliozzi brothers could have decided that Hacker’s Haven was a big, embarrassing mistake and let themselves be weighed down by it. Instead, it turned out to be a stepping stone to something much bigger.
Now you could argue that this was just serendipity. A one-in-a-million accident. So I’ll give you another example.
Bob Proctor’s Big Opportunity
Bob Proctor started an office cleaning business in Canada and then built up a multimillion dollar consulting business in both Canada and the US. He is now a business consultant, writer and motivational speaker in high demand. He tells a story about his first book, which he had written in longhand before the advent of personal computers. He had almost finished it when he discovered he had left the manuscript, his only copy, in the back of a taxi on one of his business trips. His wife tried to track it down, calling all the cab companies in the city, but no luck. It was gone.
Proctor could have gotten angry about the loss. He could have given up on the whole book idea, which might have ended his speaking career before it began. Instead, he calmly told his wife that it was okay, he would just write the book over and make it better, which he did. When the book finally came out, his company had grown and he had also established his company in the US. Since had a bigger base of his own clients to offer it to, the book did much better than it would have if it had come out earlier. Because Proctor saw his “mistake” as an opportunity to do better, he ended up in a better place than he would have been if he had not made any mistake.
So if you make a mistake, remember the levels of mastery. First, remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes; it’s not the end of the world. Second, ask yourself what you can learn from it. Finally, start cultivating an attitude that mistakes hold within them the seeds of greater things, and expect to find those things. If you don’t give up, your “mistakes” may take you much farther in your career or business than doing everything perfectly.