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Making Mistakes and Learning From Them

This blog almost didn’t happen. I was afraid I’d make mistakes in what I write or what I say. In fact, many other projects that I have started have completely sputtered out due to this fear of failure.

Have I already made some mistakes? Yup, and I will continue to do so as I go. What I have not done is to allow these mistakes to cripple me. Instead, I allowed myself to use them to improve, and so can you.

Making Mistakes and Learning From Them

Making Mistakes, and Learning From Them

Success is like getting high, but failing is like going to the gym.

When things go right everybody feels good, everybody is happy, and nobody cares why.

When you tied your shoe this morning did you reflect on how it could have been improved? Or on today’s commute, did you think about how to add additional safety processes to the transportation system?

Probably not, because they worked just as expected. Things that work rarely get attention, and therefore rarely get improved.

Now think of something that didn’t go so well this week. The program crashed, late to a meeting, said something embarrassing.

Afterwards did you stop and think about what happened? Did you fix the bug and make the software more efficient in the process? Your boss take you aside to have a chat?

Mistakes get attention, but with that attention, you get to actually improve yourself and your products.

Every mistake is like a push-up, they suck every time, but the more you do the stronger you get.

Show That You Can Learn

When mistakes happen it can sometimes feel like your career is over. But unless your really screwed up (and try to cover it up – aka VW) it’s more likely your team and management are looking at what you’ll do next.

“We learn from failure, not from success!” – Bram StokerDracula

When the company hired you (especially if this was your first career job) they knew they would be investing in you. They want you to produce, yes, but they also want you to learn and grow so that the next project you do is even better.

So when that next mistake comes, remember that your team is looking for how you respond.

Do you blame others, make excuses, and sulk away embarrassed? All bad choices by the way. Instead, take accountability, share your plan to fix the problem, and how you can make changes to prevent it from happening again.

This may garner you more respect and admiration from your teammates than having done the project successfully in the first place.

Your Take Away

Mistakes suck, they make you look bad, and they can cause serious harm or cost. But it’s how you recover that will propel your career.

For your next ‘oops,’ do a postmortem – sit down and analyze what went wrong and how it was allowed to happen. Interview your coworkers to get their take (remember you are trying to learn, not place blame). Play back the events in your head and imagine how it could have gone differently.

Afterwards, present your findings and plan to your manager, admitting your part in the mistake and what you are doing to make up for it.

The fist time it may take a good deal of time to put everything together, and it may feel like a big waste of energy to do for every mistake, but it will become faster as it becomes automatic. Jeff Atwood (Author of Coding Horror) put it: “I don’t think it matters how you conduct the postmortem, as long as you do it.”

Don’t let the fear of making a mistake paralyze you into inaction. Take some risks, learn from each misstep, and improve your methods for the next attempt.

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  • Pattern-chaser

    “I don’t think it matters how you conduct the postmortem, as long as you do it.” Yes! My most common failure was not to do the post-mortem at the end of a project, to see what we had learned. Good advice! [Your post, that is, not avoiding post mortems!]

    • Thanks PC. It can be hard to fit a postmortem in between the pressure to move on to the next project or even embarrassment/pride of knowing you are looking back on all the nitty gritty. But on the occasions that I do spend the time, I’ve really pulled out some great insights.