I’ve often said the greatest mistake a person can make is to be afraid to make one.

To be successful, you must come to terms with the notion that you will make mistakes.  In fact, you often need to increase your failures to become more successful.  Mistakes don’t make you a failure.  I always say, if you want to triple your success ratio, you might have to triple your failure rate.

lessons learnedMistakes are okay as long as you learn from them and don’t repeat them.  As Confucius said, “A man who has made a mistake and doesn’t correct it is making another mistake.”  I say it a little differently:  One mistake will never kill you.  The same mistake over and over will.

This concept is perfectly illustrated in the story of the fellow who was explaining to his neighbor how he got a burn on his right ear.  “I was getting ready to iron my shirts and the phone rang.  I picked up the iron by mistake.”

The neighbor replied, “Well, then, how did you burn your left ear?”

“The same guy called back five minutes later.”

Tom Watson Jr. was the CEO of IBM from 1956-71.  A senior executive made a large mistake costing the company a bunch of money.  When Watson called him into his office, the executive said something like, “I suppose you’re going to fire me.”  Watson replied, “Not at all, young man, we have just spent a fortune educating you.”

The great inventor Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  When Edison’s factory burned down with much of his life’s work inside, he said, “There is great value in disaster.  All our mistakes are burned up.  Thank God we can start anew.”

Both business legends saw mistakes as investments in learning. They recognized the value of real-life lessons.  When you mess up, seize the opportunity to get educated!  Unfortunately, many people don’t learn from their mistakes because they are consumed with trying to place the blame on someone else.

In today’s business climate, it seems people are making decisions faster than ever.  That creates more opportunity for mistakes.  Don’t misunderstand, I am not advocating making mistakes on purpose.  But haste, as they say, makes waste.  Wasting time is a mistake in itself.  Stop and think before you act – avoid the mistakes that are so obvious that you can predict their occurrence.

Just keep in mind that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking any risks – and that could mean you’re not making progress.

Here’s advice on turning around your mistakes:

  • Be honest.  Never try to cover up mistakes.  The earlier you ’fess up, the faster you’ll be able to correct the problem while maintaining your credibility.
  • Take responsibility.  Your bosses and your customers don’t want to hear excuses, and because it’s rare for managers to take that kind of responsibility, it’s a powerful way to show a sense of accountability for your actions (and those of your team).  Then figure out what you can do to fix it.
  • Follow up and follow through.  Sometimes simple mistakes point to more complex problems that need to be corrected.  A thorough evaluation can reveal something about your habits or the work processes that need to improve.  Schedule a meeting, if necessary, to explore what went wrong and how to avert similar errors.  Insight from others can often shed light on where things went wrong.
  • Use the opportunity to turn around a situation.  Mistakes often are prime times for people to turn bad situations into positive ones.  Any customer service guru will tell you that a lost ticket can be the perfect time to provide the best customer service you have to offer.

Everyone makes plenty of mistakes.  You learn from them.  You change.  And you move forward.  Stumbling is not falling.  As the great comedian Charlie Chaplin said:   “No matter how desperate the predicament is, I am always very much in earnest about clutching my cane, straightening my derby hat and fixing my tie, even though I may have just landed on my head.”

Consider the Hammer…  It keeps its head.  It doesn’t fly off the handle.  It keeps pounding away.  It finds the point and then drives it home.  It looks at the other side, too, and this often clinches the matter.  It makes mistakes, but when it does, it starts all over.

Mackay’s Moral:  There are really no mistakes in life – there are only lessons.


About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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