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Turning Mistakes into Opportunities

Have you ever heard someone say they love making mistakes? I’m going to guess that answer is no, and for one specific reason: being wrong about something actually goes against human nature. Psychologists have entire theories about why it’s so hard to make a mistake, but in short, it comes down to how we’re hard-wired as human beings. It’s uncomfortable to admit when you’re wrong or made a mistake because our brains tell us mistakes are bad. And they make us question who we are. The truth is you can turn mistakes into opportunities. If you can fight through the difficulty of the initial failure, you’ll see making mistakes are a necessary part of human growth. That’s especially true in business.

Mistakes happen

It’s always fascinating to read about historic business mistakes. Yes, it’s true that a simple math mistake cost NASA $125 million and the loss of a Mars orbiter. And yes, Blockbuster turned down a partnership with Netflix, and we know how that turned out. When you think about mistakes you’ve made in business, I’m certain none of them were this massive. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them anyway.

If you remember the heyday of Michael Jordan’s career, you might remember a quote of his that inspired just about anyone who laid eyes on it: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Just like in sports, failure can be a motivator if you let it. And it can help you see where you can grow.

Cultivating a growth mindset

I once heard a story of a graduate student who was frustrated by the lack of knowledge she was displaying in school. Her professor stopped her and responded simply, “Isn’t that why you’re in school? If you already knew everything, why would you be here? That’s the point of learning.” That’s how it should be in business, too. Making mistakes or not knowing an answer can be a powerful asset in business.

If you’re familiar with modern educational models, you may already be aware of the concept of a growth mindset. A growth mindset is taking challenges—like mistakes—and criticism and using them to grow. Carol Dweck, a psychologist, and Stanford professor, and the researcher behind growth mindset, has found that companies can actually benefit from having employees who aren’t afraid of making mistakes. Their employees end up feeling empowered, supported, and can even push more innovative ideas. In short, learning from mistakes can lead to better work outcomes.

How to embrace mistakes

When a mistake happens, don’t hide from it. I recommend the following action steps to turn mistakes into opportunities.

  • Figure out what went wrong. For Nasa, that error was an English-to-metric measurement mistake. For you, it could be something simpler like not starting with a solid business plan or spending over budget on a service. Dig in to figure out where things went wrong, then swallow your pride and see what you could have handled differently. When you can see the mistake through a more proactive lens, you’ll grow from it and change your behaviors.
  • Talk about it. Let others see your failures so mistakes are normalized. You’ll also want to model how you respond. Once you’ve identified the root of the mistake, discuss various ways you could have handled it differently. You may even want to ask for the opinions of your team. When your employees see you’re willing to be vulnerable and learn from it, they’ll be less afraid to make their own mistakes.
  • Move forward. What do you need to do to move forward? Do you need to hire someone with the type of expertise to prevent mistakes from happening in the future? Do you need to delegate responsibilities so you aren’t overworked and making simple errors? Identify what you need to learn, grow from it, then find success.

A final thought

Making mistakes is a part of being human. It’s how you use those mistakes that demonstrate your true character. When you handle your mistakes honestly, you’ll be viewed as trustworthy and a better leader. You’ll also gain critical wisdom for the future of your business. Guaranteed.

Jim Allen is a business leader and entrepreneur who has built one of the top-producing real estate groups in the Triangle. He is President of The Jim Allen Group, which is consistently named one of the top real estate teams in North Carolina and even North America.

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