How to Benefit from Mistakes

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Some of the biggest discoveries in math, science, and medicine have come from someone being wrong. Mistakes—“happy accidents,” in some cases—have led to the discovery of DNA, penicillin, aspirin, X-rays, Teflon, Velcro, nylon, cornflakes, and chocolate-chip cookies. Thomas Edison may have understood the value of mistakes better than anyone because it took him about a thousand tries to create the first successful light bulb.

To a certain extent, life is all about making mistakes. In her TED talk, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, quotes St. Augustine, who wrote “fallor ergo sum,” which means “I err, therefore I am.”

Mistakes happen for all sorts of reasons, such as quick reactions, fatigue, bad advice, lack of training, and confusing instructions. But regardless of the reason, we can benefit from our mistakes because it’s from them that we’re reminded how we could be better. Provided, of course, we pay attention to our mistakes, reflect on them, and learn from them.

Some mistakes, in fact, may be blessings in disguise because they help us become aware of potential trouble we might not have become aware of otherwise. Mistakes supply feedback for corrective action, contingent options, or improvements. A mistake is information.

In his book, The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney suggests that it’s a good idea to produce as manyhonest mistakes as possible in order to produce a large amount of information that can be used to solve problems. Of course, your manager may not be thrilled by this idea. Still, at an organizational level, instead of fostering a culture of failure, we need to learn from mistakes so that the individual, team and organization benefit.

Unfortunately, some people are afraid of making mistakes, so they avoid taking chances or trying new things. And some people routinely kick themselves for their mistakes. Instead, acknowledge your negative feelings about the mistake. Put it into perspective: Will it still seem significant a day, a week, or a year from now? Apologize if appropriate. Learn from it. And then move on, recognizing that whatever the mistake was, it won’t be your last.

Opening her TED talk, Kathryn Schulz describes how, during a road trip, she misinterpreted a road sign she’d been seeing for 2,000 miles.

Have you ever made an amusing mistake like hers?

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.