The Art of Recovering From Mistakes

Car Repair and Mistake Recovery Mastery“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. 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 went on to become a business consultant, writer and motivational speaker in high demand. He told 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.

Don’t Wait Until You’re Perfectly Ready—Leap Before You Look!

Last week I described why demanding perfection from yourself can sabotage your work or business. You can waste enormous amounts of time and energy feeling bad that you don’t do your job exactly the way you think you should, or perform better than everybody else, or get more done. You may put off taking action—speaking up at a meeting, taking on a new project at work, or telling others about your business—and so miss out on opportunities that could come your way. So while working to improve your skills is an important part of growth and development, perfectionism is a major block to anyone hoping to advance in their career or grow their business.

If you recognize yourself as a perfectionist who is blocking your own success, then the technique I detailed last week of changing your internal message from “I’m not good enough” to “I am good enough” is a valuable approach to changing your perfectionist mindset. By all means, use it. But don’t stop there. To get even more powerful results, and get them quicker, try the opposite extreme for while. Start taking immediate action. Do things before you feel completely ready to act, before your plan is perfectly formed.

Leap First, Ask Questions Later

In bungee jumping, it's all about taking the leapWhen you see an opportunity, step up and take it. If your boss says she needs someone to take on a new project, open your mouth and say “I’ll do it” before you have time to think of all the reasons you’re not the best qualified. If someone at the next table at lunch is talking about having a problem that your business handles, lean over, apologize for interrupting, and hand them your card instead of thinking of the other people out there who must know more than you do. Go ask your boss for something new to work on. In other words, leap before you look.

For the next month, try this as an experiment. Do not analyze all the pros and cons of doing things before doing them. You’ve already been doing that and it hasn’t worked for you —you fell into the perfectionist trap. So it’s time to try a new approach. Instead, act first then figure out how to do the best you reasonably can with the opportunity you now have.

If you are a true perfectionist, you are probably going into conniptions right about now, thinking “I can’t do that, what if I get it wrong? What if I don’t do it as well as the other guy? I’m just not ready. There’s not enough time.” Do it anyway. It is a fast way to get out of your old rut. The more you do it, the more successes you will have and the more you will realize that your old way of thinking (that you aren’t good enough at what you do and need to do everything better to be valuable) is wrong.

How to Leap First, In Two Easy Steps

If you follow a couple of steps, it will be easier to do this experiment.

First, talk and think about your goals for everything you do in a different way. Whatever your project is, whether it is fixing a process in your department that is too slow, editing an internal manual, or training your client’s employees in the use of new software, your job is to improve the situation and make it better than it was—not to make everything perfect. Remind yourself of this at every chance you get. When you realize that your goal is to improve things for your company or your client, then you will realize that every improvement you make gives value. In this way, every improvement you make is a success. Remember, perfection isn’t achievable. Improvement is.

Second, plan from the start to make changes to your project, whatever it is, as you go along. This is actually a deliberate approach taken by many companies because it often gets them better results than waiting to start work on a project until it is all planned out. That way they, and you, can make changes as they go along to meet the needs that become apparent only after they’ve been working on it for a time.

Case in Point: How Cal Built Momentum

For example, take a client of mine who realized he should be out networking for a new job but was having trouble getting moving. “Cal” had all sorts of excuses. He hadn’t updated his old resume. He needed to optimize it for the type of job he wanted to get. He needed to create a plan for who to contact in what order to get the type of job he wanted to get. Heck, he needed to figure out what kind of job he wanted to get! Every way he looked, he saw ways he could do it wrong, and that had him stymied.

To cut the Gordian Knot, he emailed an acquaintance, asking for coffee and the opportunity to talk about what kinds of jobs were out there. No, he hadn’t perfected his resume, his plan of attack or even his goal. But he was moving, and things started to fall into place. The acquaintance had heard of a couple of jobs that might do. They didn’t, but they got Cal thinking of some other places to look for job postings. Another friend offered to make suggestions for his resume and came up with changes that were far better than Cal would have made on his own. Soon he was clarifying what he wanted in his next job as well as getting a better idea of what was available. He was also sending out better and better resumes. None of these things would have happened if he waited until he had everything perfectly ready to go.

Your Assignment: Do This for 30 Days

If you are a perfectionist, here is your assignment. For the next month, whenever you get that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that you’re not ready, or not good enough, to take on a project, whether big or small, step forward and do it. (Okay, start with just a small project first if you need to, but as soon as it is complete do another.) Next, set a limited goal only to improve the situation you are working on, whatever it is, not to make it perfect. Finally, get started on it, knowing that you can and will adjust what you are doing as new information comes in.

(By the way, if you know that this is what you need to do to get out of your own perfectionist trap but you just can’t bring yourself to start the experiment, a coach might be able to help you dismantle the trap so you can move forward.)

Some part of all perfectionists knows that they can do more than they are allowing themselves to do. If that’s you, try this experiment and see how quickly you can strengthen that part of you and really start succeeding the way you know you can.

A Simple Way to Escape the Perfectionism Trap

Perfectionism is a block many people have that masquerades as a positive attribute. We often think that the drive to be perfect in what we do and who we are pushes us to achieve more in our work. It does, to a certain extent. More often, though, it slows us down or even keeps us from starting something that has the potential to really propel us forward. Let me give you two examples of what this block can look like.

The Professional Perfectionist

Shoelaces tied togetherThere is a particular breed of independent professional who never seems to be satisfied with their abilities. They are always getting one more training, learning one more technique, acquiring one more string of letters to put behind their name. I support being a lifelong learner and seeking more knowledge in our professions when done for the right reasons. But consider one perfectionist professional, let’s call him Carl, who isn’t using the pursuit of knowledge to improve his work, he is using it to hide from his work.

Instead of bringing what he already has into the world to help people, Carl holds himself back with thoughts that he isn’t ready. He not only delays things like marketing to prospective clients and referrers, he even avoids printing up business cards and talks down his own abilities to friends and acquaintances. He keeps telling himself things like, “I’m not good enough yet. I’ll just get one more certification. Then I’ll be good enough at what I do to offer it to people.” But since he always sees one more something-or-other that he can learn, he keeps his availability under wraps. His business just limps along with too few clients. And people Carl could help go elsewhere, or do without.

The Corporate Perfectionist

Perfectionism blocks people in the corporate world, too. A client I’ve been working with recently, “Jen,” would go into a tailspin whenever anything went wrong—if her code broke, the boss told her to change something she had been working on, or a co-worker was recognized for his work when she was not. Any time her work was less than perfect, or even just less impressive in some respect than a colleague’s, she would tell herself “I’m not good enough,” and her work would suffer because of it. For several days she would go into a funk, not just feeling down but unable to think clearly and get her work done.

That message, “I’m not good enough,” is what I call an emotional belief. It is a statement that we can argue with logically, and even know in our heads to be wrong, but deep down it just feels true. It turns out that Jen’s emotional belief came from growing up with a father who taught her that everything she did had to be done absolutely correctly or it was a failure. Getting 97% on an exam was not enough. Why did she get that one question wrong? She worked very hard to get his approval, which was always out of reach. That drive to be perfect worked for a time. She got great grades, went to impressive schools, and got a good job, but ultimately it held her back.

Jen and I have been working, memory by memory, on defusing the times her father’s disapproval trained her to believe “I’m not good enough.” As each memory loses its punch. Jen finds she can bounce back from things that go wrong that much quicker. What used to take her days to recover from now takes a few hours or less. This is a huge improvement, and it shows not just in her mood but in her work, too.

A Quick Test: Are You A Perfectionist?

High achievers often have a touch of perfectionism in them. It pushes them to do better than others. But when it becomes a block, it can seem insurmountable. Look around at your own life. Do you have any examples of acting like Carl or Jen? Do you put off moving on an opportunity because “other people are better than me” or “I’m not ready yet,” even though what you have to offer right now is valuable and would help people? Do you beat yourself up (metaphorically speaking) whenever things don’t go exactly the way you imagined they should?

Here’s a quick way to determine if you have a perfectionism block. Say out loud “I’m not good enough.” How true did that feel to you emotionally on a scale of 0 to 100 percent? If your number is anything greater than 0, you could benefit from making a deceptively simple change.

Your Quick Escape from the Perfectionist Trap

Whenever you notice that you are holding yourself to a standard of perfection—whether you are putting off something that you know you could do now because you don’t feel ready, or you are feeling bad because you have not done something quite as well as you hoped—think to yourself “It’s good enough.” For added punch, say it out loud. If  you actually catch yourself thinking something like “I’m not good enough,” then think or say “I am good enough.”

You may have to say it several times if your feelings drown the statement out. And you will have to keep changing your negative message to the positive one for some time to come, probably months, to break the old habit of perfectionism.

At first, you won’t notice much change. In fact, you’ll probably notice that you “talk back” to yourself, thinking things like “Still, I could have done it better” or “But I don’t have the training that so-and-so has” or even simply a sarcastic “Yeah, right.”

Keep going. Say it again. “It’s good enough, and I’m good enough.”

If you need to, write down the objective evidence that what you did (or who you are) is indeed “good enough.” (For more on how to use this approach, see my article on changing your negative self-talk.)

Make It Stick!

This is so simple it might seem too good to be true, but it works—if you stick with it—by challenging your negative mindset and re-writing a new message. (If your belief that you’re not good enough doesn’t budge after you’ve been challenging it for a while, it’s probably time to see a coach.)

Each time you remind yourself that you are good enough you will be taking a step forward on the road to changing the old message that has been holding you back. You will start to notice that it gets easier to bounce back from mistakes and take chances. And when finally you no longer hold yourself back by demanding perfection, you will discover that your “good enough” takes you very, very far indeed!