Turning mistakes into opportunities
Do you remember the last time you made a mistake that loomed large, even just for a short moment? Maybe it was at work, maybe with your art or craft, perhaps it was public but perhaps not.
Do you remember the feeling of uselessness?
A couple of months ago I made a work error that felt epic and kicked off a week long internal sulk and struggle. I hadn’t felt like that for a long time. I obviously hadn’t been venturing very far from my comfort zone.
But there I was, smarting from what felt like an epic fail; questions like this were pouring in;
Who did I think I was attempting to elevate my craft?
Why did I think I had what it takes? Nobody said so?
And most importantly,
How can I exit this space forever and live a simple and pain-free existence away from adversity and error?
The epic error? I turned in a piece of writing to a new client that wasn’t what they were looking for, and I had to rewrite it.
I know, I know, I’m embarrassed, but losing faith in yourself is not a pleasant experience, even if it’s just for a week.
You know the feeling, don’t you? You understand that you’ll get over it, whatever it is but in the meantime it stings.
The narratives of daring business endeavours and exceptional individuals tend to focus on the successes or the truly epic failures which are only shared after the author has regained control of the situation.
In the middle, however, is a vast swathe of land where small mistakes get overblown, and we end up feeling inferior because the feeling is new, or long forgotten or we don’t have someone to rationalise the sensation of feeling like an epic fuckup.
And out there people have real problems right? They don’t have energy for these crises of confidence.
I wrote a blog based on an interview with MotoX Champion Ricky Carmichael, who had some great insights about his path to glory. One rule that he holds over his racing is the ability to make a mistake once, but never twice.
Err, learn triumph and don’t make a mistake twice.
I’ve also written before about getting value out of your mistakes, but I’m going to push that idea further towards seeing them as top cargo that is worth the pain of uncertainty and that risk that maybe you’re just not good enough.
In the words of Neil Gaiman,
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
Here are three tools that I use to put my mistakes in perspective and turn them into valuable life and work currency.
The Mistake Journal
I know, I know, we’ve all heard about the power of journaling but do you have a specific mistakes journal?
In my previous blog I talk about a register but just listing the details of an error doesn’t give you the full story.
Putting the entire context of the mistake down in narrative form has multiple benefits.
Firstly the act of writing something down is a form of ownership. Like with goals and aspirations to write them down is to take a step a first step towards getting them done. You’ve given your mistake a new status already.
But also sometimes your mistake isn’t actually what you thought it was.
For example, with my rewrite, I hastily assumed that I hadn’t researched or understood the task properly. I think it was a failure in my ability which is where your default can sometimes go, especially when you’re stressed. Unless you’re a narcissist, then that default is to someone else. But that’s another blog.
After journaling the incident, my real error was rushing. I was rushing to submit, rushing to prove myself, rushing to make an impression on this new client and what for? No-one was pressing me for this deadline.
My first take on the mistake; ability, makes me feel like crap and reluctant to take on challenging assignments in the future.
But the second one is empowering; it gives me an insight to a flaw in my process that, now identified, can help me not make the same mistake twice.
When you journal your mistake look for the following things.
Who else was involved, who saw the mistake?
What would you think if someone else made a mistake rather than you — another friend or colleague.
What is the fallout? Lost job? Lost income? Lost sanity (yours) Lost career etc.
Why did you make a mistake?
What’s been the reaction so far
Do you know how to fix it?
What will you do differently next time?
So, you should be feeling better already. I particularly like the one where you reflect what you would do if it were someone else. You’d probably be a lot kinder than you are to yourself.
Template or Checklist
Don’t stop here, please, this is the gold stage. This is the process that will make you think twice next time. If indeed you have made a mistake and not just been beating yourself up for fun.
In my case, rushing work is a problem, maybe for someone else, it is taking too much time or taking criticism badly or reacting too quickly or sloppy grammar.
Whatever the source of the mistake turn it into a checklist or a template that you use to make yourself a more professional or smoothing running operation next time.
Memories of mistakes can fade quickly but if you turn it into a tool you are infinitely less likely to make this mistake again, or at least if you make a decision, it will be in your control.
My template includes:
The client deadline.
My deadline to give it the required breathing space.
And a simple question at the end ‘have you rushed this?’
Or have you put it through Grammarly
Have you assigned the correct tone of voice?
Have you attached the correct file?
Have you though this through or are you reacting too quickly.
Critically, what is the measure that I need to put in place to stop the old thing happening again?
If you take the time to make yourself create these templates, you’ll remember and therefore be more equipped not to make a mistake again, but also you’ll be so bored by the practice that you will avoid making silly mistakes.
Like writing out lines at detention at primary school.
That’s the crux of it; eliminate the low hanging fruit of mistakes. People think you’re silly for making a small mistake but often brave or courageous for making a big one.
You should be feeling better already; you’ve written out and understood the nature of the mistake. You’ve created a system whereby you can catch the same error next time.
You’re ready to hit the next challenge.
But, okay, maybe you’re still feeling like shit.
You’re still not feeling much like Ricky Carmichael or Warren Buffet or Sheryl Sandberg and you’d rather you just went into hiding.
If you’re still upset and my attempts to cheer you up and work through the mistakes have failed; you can try this catastrophe quiz.
Add up the answers as you go along.
Yes or No answers. Yes =5, Maybe = 2 No =0
Q1. Does this mistake represent the last chance you will ever have to achieve your dream?
Q2. Does this mistake involve an activity that was even on your dream path?
Q3. Is this mistake irreparable
Q4. Have you ruined anyone’s life — not including your own because perhaps you’re still feeling down?
Q5. Will this mistake lead to you losing all of your money?
Q6. Will this mistake spell the end of a friendship or relationship.
Q7. Will this mistake spell the end of someone’s business? Either yours or someone else’s.
Q8. Is there a chance you could go to jail for this mistake?
Q9. Has something other than your ego been adversely affected?
Q10. Has your ego been adversely affected?
On your feet soldier; I know you’re feeling bad, but this sounds like a mere brush with a stinging nettle bush; not much lost but perhaps that horrible realisation that you’re not a god, and you’re not perfect is lingering
You’ve just got to get over it and make sure you are doing your best. It sounds like nobody has been hurt.
Make sure you’ve got your templates ready and filled out, and you’re good to go. You’re richer in practice than where you started from.
It sounds like quite a tumble, but probably, nobody has died, which was a key phrase of mine in the early part of 2017.
I’ll leave you with another quote from Neil Gaiman about the value of making mistakes which sums up the purpose of this article. Make sure you do the exercise above.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my desire for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
I’m really sorry, but this quiz wasn’t meant for you, sorry but hopefully you’ve still gleaned some useful information about the mistake from the journaling process, and maybe some elements still aren’t as bad as you think? Good luck.
My score came up at 5, which is the ego question. It’s hard when we realise that through error we’ve let ourselves down slightly, but for those not blessed with natural wisdom, such as me it is the only way through.
Most of the mistakes we make as freelancers are not going to be catastrophic, but they do sometimes feel that way.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling better already about last week’s errors, BUT I’ve journaled through the cause and effects, I’ve created a template checklist to stop it happening again, and I’m ready to roll with the next challenge.
Thanks for reading.