Finding Value in Mistakes When the Value is Not Immediately Apparent: Adding Arrows to Your Quiver

Last week I had the unpleasant task of informing our team that, due to an inexcusable and incompetent mistake for which I was solely responsible dating back almost a year, a property that we had acquired around that time was effectively half of what we thought it was (i.e., we paid double) because of the information prepared only by me and relied upon by my superiors. There will likely be material ramifications, both in terms of excess money paid for the property, as well as my colleagues having to drop what they’re doing to try to salvage things on the asset going forward in light of my mistake. Being that I am someone who takes his work and profession quite seriously (probably too seriously, to some), it’s a pretty jarring precept to come up against: your error singlehandedly cost your colleagues and your company significant time and money.

I’ve just completed Ray Dalio’s new book Principles (which I highly recommend to anyone reading), and he spends some time in the section titled “Work Principles” discussing the value of making mistakes, and then learning from them. In his lead-in to Work Principle #3, “Create a Culture in Which It is Okay to Make Mistakes and Unacceptable Not to Learn From Them,” he writes:

  • Everyone makes mistakes. The main difference is that successful people learn from them and unsuccessful people don’t. By creating an environment in which it is okay to safely make mistakes so that people can learn from them, you’ll see rapid progress and fewer significant mistakes…[I]f you look back on yourself a year ago and aren’t shocked by how stupid you were, you haven’t learned much.

A prior manager of mine a few years ago told me something that I’d not heard before but, upon reflection, I couldn’t really disagree with – he said something to the effect of “the thing I like about you is that you rarely make the same mistake twice.” This probably makes sense for someone like me who is borderline neurotic about learning from my mistakes, and even the mistakes of others, mainly out of a fear of failure, fear of losing my job, and even the fear of having the confidence I have in myself and that others have in me partially or totally negated. I can point to specific situations in my career where I did a particular thing wrong, analyzed what caused the error, and took care to implement steps to prevent the same error going forward – the analogy I prefer is that another arrow was added to my quiver.

However, in considering the aftermath several days later of how the error I referenced at the start of this writing affected myself, my team, and the company, the most difficult part to deal with in this particular instance is that I can’t yet seem to distill a good guiding principle to take with me going forward; I can’t yet grasp what arrow has now been put into my quiver. Usually mistakes are a bit more granular in nature, so it’s easy to say “do X next time” or “don’t do X next time,” but in this instance all I’ve been able to arrive at is a general self-admonishment of “be more careful;” a hardly satisfying lesson when you do want to make each mistake count going forward. It so happens that the particular mistake I made was performing a function that I rarely perform anymore (though I did for some time beforehand), so the granular lesson is seemingly less applicable. Learning to deal with our company’s rapid growth and expansion has, at times, felt like drinking from a firehose. It’s probably safe to say we have collectively made many small errors or mistakes that cost smaller amounts of money, or maybe cause redundancy and/or duplication of efforts. But such a large mistake coupled with such a generic principle with which to take away is profoundly unsatisfying to me. Perhaps the arrow will show itself at a later point once some time has passed.

It’s gratifying to work with people who have instilled a company culture of being forthright and upfront in a professional and ethical environment. It was profoundly deflating realizing how poorly I erred (and am still working through that); but, given that our culture is one of transparency and honesty, I always knew it would be far better to head off the situation and preempt the matter as opposed to quietly sitting on it and allowing the problem to fester. This seems to be the best way to run a team with regard to “failing well” – a work environment where someone gets excoriated for any mistake will lead to mistakes being swept under the rug rather than brought out to the open, leading to more problems and pain. To the credit of my colleagues, they’ve jumped in immediately to try to find the best workable solution in light of my mistake rather than casting blame or pointing fingers, although I certainly deserve plenty of both.

And now, if you please, this crow is getting cold…

This article is also available at my LinkedIn page. 

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