4 lessons on learning from your mistakes

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At the risk of belaboring a small point (and repeating a bit of the story from my last post), I couldn’t help but write this month’s ezine article on learning from your mistakes since my word bumbling was so fresh in my mind.  Here is the article:
This week I was flying high from the opportunity to write a guest post for the New York Times.  As someone raised by a family who loves to read and write, it felt like the height of professional accomplishment.  Wednesday the post was published and I got a real charge out of seeing my words under the NYT masthead.

Yesterday, I spent many hours writing a detailed post on pricing. As a last touch to the post, I referenced the famous consultant Alan Weiss, author of 25 books, including Million Dollar Consulting.  I listened to an interview with him and Robert Middleton and found that while his advice was excellent, his direct way of saying things might put off some of my more sensitive readers.  So I  mentioned that Alan was a bit “crass.”
Upon checking email early this morning, Alan himself informed me that he was offended by the word “crass.”  I looked it up in the dictionary and was very horrified to see that he was right – the word meant “So crude and unrefined as to be lacking in discrimination and sensibility.”  I chose the wrong word and offended a complete stranger.  And a prominent one at that.

My immediate emotional reaction was dread.  What a difference a day makes!  I felt really stupid and realized I had made a big mistake.

Any business expert will tell you that all successful people fail and make mistakes, some of them many times. In fact, did you know:
  • After Harrison Ford’s first performance as a hotel bellhop in the film Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, the studio vice-president called him in to his office. “Sit down kid,” the studio head said, “I want to tell you a story. The first time Tony Curtis was ever in a movie he delivered a bag of groceries. We took one look at him and knew he was a movie star.” Ford replied, “I thought you were spossed to think that he was a grocery delivery boy.” The vice president dismissed Ford with “You ain’t got it kid , you ain’t got it … now get out of here.”
  • Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, and Jimmy Johnson accounted for 11 of the 19 Super Bowl victories from 1974 to 1993. They also share the distinction of having the worst records of first-season head coaches in NFL history – they didn’t win a single game.
  • After his first audition, Sidney Poitier was told by the casting director, “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” It was at that moment, recalls Poitier, that he decided to devote his life to acting.
These and lots of other examples remind us that we are not alone to either publicly humiliate ourselves or fail miserably.
The challenge is, how do we learn from our mistakes in the moment we are making them so we don’t get paralyzed with shame?

Lesson one: Apologize immediately
Before doing anything else, swiftly and directly apologize for your mistake.  Tell your wife you are sorry for hurting her feelings.  Tell the store clerk that you really didn’t mean to walk out the door with the copy of People magazine you were scanning while waiting in line.  Tell your boss you didn’t mean to call him an idiot on the conference call – you thought your phone was on mute.  However you have injured or harmed someone else, say you are sorry and extend the appropriate restitution.  Waiting a long time to apologize will just further anger the person you have offended and lead them to believe you have no remorse for your actions.

Lesson two:  Tend to your emotions
After doing something particularly stupid, you usually feel like either laughing or crying.  Both will make you feel better.  So hug your sweetie, your kids or your dog.  Or get some coffee with your best friend and cry on her shoulder.  This will release some of your pent-up emotion so you can think rationally.  Humor is the other great pressure relief.  My dear blog reader Mike, after reading my public apology to Alan about word confusion, shared the following story:
A number of years ago, a friend rang me up and said she was interested about a job advertised in my company. She was looking for some general background information and so on. She told me she was going to be interviewed by my boss at the time.  After the interview, I asked her how it had gone, and if she was interested in the job. She just burst out laughing. When trying to sell her on our company and how much people liked working there because we had low turnover of staff, my boss made repeated use of the term “the low rate of nutrition”. He meant, of course “attrition”. After that, my friend said she couldn’t consider working there because she’d never be able to look him in the eye without laughing. But truly, we were all very skinny at the time!
Mike’s comment made me laugh out loud.  I feel for his former boss, who probably turns red whenever he recalls his mistake.  That is if he realizes it – for all we know, he could still be touting the benefits of skinny employees.

Lesson three:  Remember who you are
For the perfectionists among us, your mind doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between big and little mistakes.  You feel the same pit in your stomach whether you misuse a word or smash into someone’s bumper because you are yacking on your cellphone.  So as soon as you gain composure, remind yourself that you are generally a decent human being and are entitled to a mistake or two.  I know that I would not want to get friendly with someone with no cellulite, who always sends a thank you card the day after receiving a gift and who would never consider feeding her kids potato chips for dinner.  No one is that perfect.

Lesson four:  Move on with a great story
Once you have apologized and gotten over the emotional impact of your mistake, move on.  Take your wife out to dinner, get back in line with the same clerk who thought you were a shoplifter, return to the Monday morning meeting and look your boss in the eye, or start writing your next article.  Stop beating yourself up and start formulating a great story from the lesson.  These stories are what will hold you together the next time you trip up and do something foolish.  And the first time your child comes to you with tears in his eyes because he made a fool of himself in public, you can quietly put him on your knee and say “You think that is stupid?  When I was your age, here is what I did …”

Alan graciously accepted my apology.  And I learned a great lesson.

What are your thoughts about learning from your mistakes?

I promise to put Lesson four into action and move on.  But I couldn’t resist sharing the story.
Have a great weekend!

16 Responses to “4 lessons on learning from your mistakes”

  1. Tameca says:

    I just streamed a commencement speech yesterday, delivered by J.K. Rowling at Harvard Univ. My favorite quote from her speech was, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

    Thank you for writing this honest and helpful article, Pam. I will keep all of the above in mind as I am laughing and/or crying my way to success 😉

  2. […] And for the bloggers among you, your screw-ups can lead to confessional blog posts, like 4 lessons on learning from your mistakes. […]

  3. Great post, Pam.
    I think everybody goes through some of situations, expressed in your article.
    My main advice for your life success – Do not loose your sense ob humor. You will see it really helps.


  4. Dave says:

    Hey that’s OK Pam. I’ve had my own run-in with Alan Weiss. You can read about it here:


    and here:


    Ironically, Alan is now blogging too.

  5. Mike says:

    Hi Pam,

    One further point on the ‘nutrition’ story – I did try to raise the subject with my boss afterwards.
    I asked him casually how things had gone in the interview, and he again said nutrition instead of attrition. But I chickened out – I couldn’t bring myself to tell him.

    The interesting thing was, if it had come up in a normal conversation I would have told him and we could have had a good laugh about it.
    But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him as, under the circumstances, he would surely realise how he had misused the term and been quite embarrassed.


  6. Yup. It happens to the “best” of us — and it’s even more difficult the more public the mistake. I wrote about this in an ezine and referred to a wonderful book by Aaron Lazar, former Dean of the UMass Medical School, “On Apology”. In my post, I talked about how an apology, according to Lazar, has to do more than just say I’m sorry – it has to acknowledge that we really understand what we’re apologizing for. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a chronic illness and bad symptoms prevented you from making a deadline — or you forgot to call your husband’s mom for he birthday — or you insulted someone in a public place. The apology only has meaning if you demonstrate that you understand what you did that was offensive. AND, you did. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Harrison says:

    I agree that saying “sorry” is the first thing we must do after making any mistakes. For me, I just feel sad and sorry if I don’t speak out the word “sorry”.

  8. What an important topic, Pam. When venturing out on my own, I found the decisions I make are more “grown up” – bigger, riskier, more exciting, and (of course) *my own*. Taking the emotional baggage out of them (and the inevitable mistakes – sometimes called “learning opportunities” 🙂 is crucial. Otherwise we draw in and don’t interact with the boldness we need to be successful outside the cubicle.

    What’s worked very well for me is keeping two logs in my journal that track decisions [1] and lessons learned [2]. I’ve found that doing this takes a lot of the sting out of these events. Why? By realizing a mistake and acknowledging it right away, it depersonalizes it. It’s a thing, it happened, and I can deal with it (as you point out – apologize, etc.) Importantly, there’s a second piece that should also be tracked: decisions. Often the two are connected: Decided to X, learned lesson Y.

    Just an idea.

    [1] Some thoughts from tracking “lessons learned” for a year

    [2] A key to continuous learning: Keep a decision log

  9. Ahmed says:

    This is a good lessons. The most part I like, is the great story one. I think I learned it and I will do it when i make a mistake 🙂

    Keep writing, and nice post.

  10. Hello Pam, I loved reading your experience and I was thinking: “It’s ok if you chose the wrong word, it was an innocent mistake. NO BIG DEAL.” However, when I am the one making the mistake, I can’t think as clearly and relaxed and I freak out. Your advice is great, it may take some practice…and in the mean time I find that humor may be a handy and powerful aid to dissipate the fear, even if you have to fake it, the habit grows in you. Great weekend! Ah! and as you say, apologizing for your mistakes right away and accepting them: crucial. Tons of respect come to you that way.

  11. The important part is not the mistake, but the lessons learned. You should just expect mistakes in business — it is natural and everyone makes them. The difference between failure and greatness is not the mistakes, but your reaction to them! Great article, Pam.

  12. Andy Pels says:

    Maybe look at it this way:

    What if you screwed up and nobody noticed because nobody cared what you had to say in the first place?

    Get back to glowing about the NYT.

    The only way I’ll be disappointed is if I hear one more reference to this little oops.

    Do you hear me young lady? Not one more!

    Andy P

  13. Kelly says:

    Pam, as a person with no cellulite, who always sends a thank you card the day after receiving a gift, and who would never consider feeding ANYTHING potato chips, I am deeply offended. Actually, I’d add a fifth step which is to find a way to laugh about it afterwards. Particularly if the joke’s on you (i.e., making decorative posters out of rejection letters). It almost helps you reposition the event in your head, and the next time you screw up, it’s a wee bit easier to maintain sanity, and to apologize. (Or not.)

  14. Pam,

    You responded like the professional you are.

    You owned it.

    Mr. Weiss please accept.

    Mr. Weiss, if you know Pam the way some of us whom are privileged to call her a friend, you know she meant no ill-intention. Different choice of word, but no foul here.

    Pam, move forward smartly and gracefully.

    Matthew Scott

  15. Bridgette Boudreau says:

    Hey Pam,
    Quite a week for you!

    One other suggestion post-mistake which is really the culmination of your other four points is “Own It”. If you can say “Yep, I accidentally defamed someone/got drunk at the office holiday party and was throwing up while my boss held my hair/tracked dog ca-ca on your new carpet…” then there’s really not a lot of power in it anymore for you or others. If you Own It, you can make whatever necessary amends and do whatever you need to do to move on. Denying a mistake or an embarrassing situation allows the feelings to persist–both for you and potentially for anyone effected.

  16. Great story, and I’m so glad to see it worked out well in the end. 🙂

    In a round-about, somewhat related way, it reminds me of something that is going on in my own life that I’d love to read your thoughts/advice on in one of your blog posts.

    Personality clashes and jealousies are just a fact of life. But what does a person do when someone in their business community has a personal vendetta against them, and engages in an ongoing silent smear campaign of slander and defamation, and tells outright lies about them?