In late 2019, I interviewed a Mayor on stage at a conference in Australia. His Council had pulled off some seriously impressive work that they were...
Everybody makes mistakes, but only some people know how to use them to get better. If you've made a mistake this week, that's great. It means you're human.
But did you learn from it? Are you better as a person, a team, or an organisation? ...or have you hurriedly hidden it, and vowed never to think about it again.
Mistakes are a terrific learning tool. In this article, we'll talk about how you can use mistakes to make you better.
If you're not making mistakes, try harder
If you're not making mistakes, odds are, you're not trying anything new. Mistakes are a leadership inevitability.
Mistakes are proof that you’re trying. If you're not failing, course-correcting, and feeling like an idiot at least once a week, there are probably shots you're not taking, opportunities you're missing out on, and growth you're short-changing.
"To err is human. To forgive is divine."
- ALEXANDER POPE
The answer isn't to be more perfect, it's to be more forgiving - first of yourself, then of others.
Almost without exception, people are doing their best. But if we don't tolerate weakness and fragility in ourselves, there's no way we can forgive it in others.
10 Ways Mistakes Make Us Better
Or at least, they can. Unlike success, which we often move past quickly without reflection or acknowledgement, mistakes force us to stop and think. They’re an immediate source of feedback, and they’re right in our face, demanding corrective action.
1. Mistakes make us more creative
Mistakes are a sign that what we’re doing now isn’t working. They force us to look more closely at our situation and the choices we’re making, and come up with a new way of working.
2. Mistakes teach resilience
Very few things are as bad as we think. Mistakes are the tangible manifestation of our worst fears and hang-ups - and usually, they work out just fine. When we confront our deepest worries and survive, we gain faith in our ability and capacity.
3. Mistakes fill our story bank
No good story starts with all the things that went to plan. When we make mistakes, we add richness and colour to our personal narrative, giving us interesting examples to draw on when we talk to other people.
4. Mistakes connect us to others
In fact, data suggests that when someone we respect makes a mistake, we trust them more, because we can relate more easily to them.
(Caveat: this only works for people we already think are credible. If someone who we think is an idiot messes up, it reinforces our original perception.)
5. Mistakes make us smarter
When we experience the uncomfortable consequences of our errors, we store that information in a real and tangible way. Our brains are wired to avoid pain and discomfort, so it automatically searches for ways to avoid feeling that bad again.
6. Mistakes make us braver
When we own up to our faults and foibles, our inner strength gets a boost. When we’re forced to do better, by our own hand, we’re more likely to make important changes and take scary risks that take us closer to our goals.
7. Mistakes keep us humble
Success can be dangerous. It makes us complacent and can lead to us taking things for granted, or overestimating our own abilities. Mistakes are a useful reminder that no matter how well we’ve done, we’ve always got room to grow.
8. Mistakes motivate change
Negative experiences are a more powerful catalyst for change than positive ones. When things are going well, it’s much easier to embrace the familiarity of the status quo and defer change. The immediacy and intensity of recovering from a mistake pushes us to take action sooner.
9. Mistakes help us know ourselves
We do the things we do for a reason - good, bad and ugly. Every habit, behaviour or tendency has developed in response our environment and experiences, which is fine… until it isn’t. When we examine our motivations and patterns, we gain a deeper understanding of who we are and who we'd like to be.
10. Mistakes remind us what really matters
When we’re faced with losing something important, we get clarity about our priorities. When we make a mistake that threatens something valuable, we get a fresh perspective on what needs to come first.
7 Steps to Make The Most Of Your Mistakes
Mistakes might not feel good, but they’re important, so let’s not let them go to waste. Learning from our mistakes requires us to do 7 critical things.
- Realise you've messed up
- Own your role
- Reflect on what happened
- Put things right
- Try something new
- Make the mistake again
- Make a new mistake.
Step 1 - Realise you’ve messed up
Our brains lie to us, all the time. When we’re faced with something that’s embarrassing, shameful or doesn’t align with how we view ourselves, it’s easier to ignore or deny the truth.
If you’re not sure whether you’re in the wrong, try observing the way you act and feel.
How to spot a mistake:
You feel guilty or have an uneasy sensation in your gut
You’re overreacting to something that wouldn’t usually bother you, to deflect attention
You’re feeling exhausted and you can’t explain why
You’re lying about some, or all, of what happened
You’re keeping unusually quiet, so you’re not found out
You’re trying to move on too quickly.
If you’re noticing one or more of these, pause. You might have done something wrong.
STEP 2 - Own your role
Human relationships are complicated. Things are rarely clear-cut, and you can usually blame someone else when things go wrong.
It’s unlikely that what happened is entirely your fault, but that’s irrelevant. You’re not responsible for anyone else’s behaviour, and you’re certainly not responsible for their growth or change.
The only person you can control is you - so do it. Own up to your role, using plain language and tangible details.
- You might be tempted to minimise your own liability, soften the truth, or play down the impacts.
- Or, you might find yourself playing the role of the over-apologetic martyr, to garner sympathy and prove what a good person you really are.
Neither of these are helpful - they’re both a form of emotional manipulation. Avoid going to extremes and don’t add unnecessary explanations, disclaimers or excuses that will undermine your integrity and the authenticity of your apology.
Step 3: Reflect on what happened
We usually try to move past discomfort quickly. When we see a chance for relief, it’s hard not to grab it.
If you’ve owned your role in the mess - no more, and no less - you’ve probably put out the obvious fire.
The easy and most comfortable choice is to now put it behind you and get on with being great again. But do that, and you'll waste the opportunity you’ve just been given.
Odds are you were trying, but you got something wrong. Take the time to work out which bit failed, so you can do differently next time.
Good reflection questions include:
What was I trying to do?
Why did I do it that way?
What was I afraid of?
- What information was I missing?
What did I assume or misjudge?
What other options did I have?
- How did my actions affect others?
- What good came out of it?
How would I do it differently next time?
Record your answers, and for bonus points, test your thinking with someone else. They’re likely to ask further questions, or point out inconsistencies. If it’s not safe or fair to involve affected parties, talk to a trusted friend or colleague instead - choose someone who will tell you the truth, even if it doesn’t feel great.
Step 4: Put things right
Reflection isn’t enough. It’s important, but it’s largely self-serving, because it’s helping you to become better.
Mistakes are an opportunity to build trust and deepen connection with others, but they require you to walk the talk. People don’t need to hear about what you’ve learned or how you’ve changed - they need to see it.
Once you’ve owned your role in the situation, show you’re committed to change with remedial action that relates directly to your mistake.
If you missed a deadline, submit your next report early.
If you let someone down, go out of your way to make their life easier.
If you broke or lost something, buy a new one.
And if you have no idea what to do, ask directly in a way that doesn't put any onus or pressure on the affected person. Instead of “what could I do to make this up to you?” try questions like:
- “How has this made things harder for you?” or
- “How has this changed your plans?”
Importantly, don’t take action expecting recognition or forgiveness.
Putting things right means you’re starting from a deficit, and you’re aiming to get back to zero. Be in service, and be happy you’ve made a dent in the ledger.
Step 5: Try something new
If we don’t embed new learning quickly, we lose it. All the reflection and understanding in the world won’t help us, if we don’t have a chance to practice our new skills.
Look for, or create, opportunities to try out a new way of being or responding.
If you reacted poorly to a spouse, child, or staff member, be on the lookout for opportunities to try a new approach.
If you missed a deadline on an important project, volunteer for a role on something else so that you can plan your time or effort differently.
Make a conscious effort to notice your defaults, and plan for success ahead of time. Intention will make a huge difference.
Step 6: Make the same mistake again
Very few lessons are learned the first time, at least not in full. Practice makes perfect, and the first thing you try might not work, especially if your initial mistake was due to deeply ingrained habits or behaviours.
It’s frustrating, but it’s OK. The goal is progress, not perfection. When you relapse, move back through steps 1-5 with a light heart and self-compassion.
It takes time to learn new behaviours, and when we regress, it doesn't mean all our effort has been for nothing. All growth is messy, and growing pains are normal. Your trial and error is a necessary part of changing something important, in a way that you can sustain.
Step 7: Make a different mistake
Mastery is never done. As soon as you learn something new, you realise how much more there is to learn. Your journey of self- improvement will uncover new challenges at every step. Each mistake takes you a step closer - but the goalposts will keep shifting.
Be ready to make new mistakes, and approach each day, project or new goal with compassionate curiosity. Muse to yourself “I wonder what will go wrong today?” or “I wonder what I’m about to learn here?” Rather than sinking into frustration, disappointment or defeat, relish the chance to keep growing, and be grateful that you’re moving forward with something that matters.
Remember, mistakes are proof that you’re trying.
If you’ve stopped making any, you’ve become too comfortable and it’s time to do something new.
Mistakes are a necessary component of change
Mistakes make us better - or at least, they can
Seven steps you can take when you mess up are:
Realise you made a mistake
Own your role
Reflect on the situation
Put things right
Try something new
Make the same mistake again
Make a new one.
Rinse and repeat. Happy mistake-making!
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