Owning and Learning from Mistakes

"Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”

Facebook’s famous mantra is a call to do that one thing that most of us fear most, especially at work: make mistakes.

All well and good, you might argue, if you are the CEO of a multi-billion social media behemoth.

But what about if you are, say, at the start of your career? Surely you need to avoid making mistakes if you want to get on professionally?

Well first off, avoiding mistakes is pretty much impossible. And playing it safe for fear of getting it wrong is not going to get you far. Risk aversion as a strategy might keep you from messing up (and it might not) but it will likely also keep you from experimenting, growing, and most importantly of all: it will keep you from learning.

That said, there is probably a right (correct) – and a wrong – way to make mistakes at work.

Own It

First off, say most psychologists, career coaches, and business leaders, getting it wrong the right way means owning up when things do not go as planned.

So if you make a mistake, stop and think about it. If it is something you can fix easily, great, go ahead. If it is something you cannot fix … how are you going to react?

Trying to hide a mistake – whether it is a small thing or whether it has further-reaching consequences – will only backfire when the truth comes out. And if you have tried to cover things up for fear of retribution, you will likely come out of it looking deceitful at best.

Owning your mistakes is a better strategy when things go wrong. It is very hard for your boss or superiors to stay mad if you apologize and explain what happened. And remember, most importantly of all: you should show that you are willing to learn from this mistake, so that your performance in the future will be better.

Learn from It

Remember that Facebook mantra? Well, look at it like this: Failure is your opportunity to learn.

As an engineer or a technician, apply your inner scientist to your mistakes. Whatever it is, when it goes wrong, ask yourself a few questions.

Start by stepping back and taking a good, dispassionate look at what happened.

  • What happened? 
  • What went wrong and what was the outcome?

Then ask yourself what you could have done differently that would have led to a better outcome.

  • What processes or tools or procedures could you have adopted?
  • What could you improve?

Finally, give some thought to what you have learned from the mistake. And how you might implement that learning in the future. And mean it. There is nothing to be gained by apologizing and promising that something will never happen again, unless you are genuine in your commitment to use a better approach, process, or procedure as a result.

Taking responsibility means owning and learning from it. And indicates to others that you are just that – responsible.

Do Not take it Personal

Few of us like to be criticized. But if you make a mistake and do receive feedback, try to channel the criticism into another opportunity to learn.

Think about what has been said – even if it causes you offense. If, after careful consideration, you think it is justified, go ahead and acknowledge it and make an apology if you have to.

See it as another opportunity to improve something about yourself. And do not take it too personally. Keep your emotional response in check and think rationally about what is said.

Remember: we all make mistakes. And no matter how devastated you might feel at the time, you will move on and so will your boss or your colleagues. What will differentiate you, is how you own and learn from the experience.

Stepping Stone

Failures are not the end, in fact, it should be perceived as a stepping stone to achieving a better solution. Employers want employees who are adaptable and willing to grow as well as learn.

Learning from your mistake and not dwelling too long on the failure, while focusing on how you can improve will not only help you produce a better product/project – it will also develop your character. Allowing you to develop professionally and with your work.