Dealing With a Mistake

Bill Abbate

What do you do when you make a mistake? It depends, does it not? If it is a small mistake, of no consequence, no harm, no foul, why be concerned? However, incrementally, small mistakes can lead to real difficulties. For example, repeated small mistakes at work can be cause for termination.

But what about more significant mistakes? Those you are better off not repeating. The type of mistake that can bring remorse and potentially make a difference in our lives. These are the mistakes from which we can learn a lesson and perhaps increase our wisdom.

"When you make a mistake, don't look back at it long. Take the reason of the thing into your mind, and then look forward. Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power." Hugh White (1876-1936)

While it is important not to dwell on past mistakes, it is also important to learn from them and not repeat them. The best way to achieve this is to find the lesson in the mistake so you can put it to good use and ensure the past does not repeat itself.

Let's look at a technique I have used to learn from mistakes and grow from them.

Learning from our mistakes

As with most things in life, we learn from our mistakes by simply asking the right questions and uncovering thoughtful answers. A few questions we can ask ourselves when making one of these more significant mistakes can include:

  • Who did it affect?
  • What was the root cause?
  • How did or can it impact my life or career?
  • What can I do differently next time?
  • What lesson do I want to take from this mistake?
  • What wisdom can I take from this experience?

An example of one such mistake was losing my temper when our equipment manager's people botched a customer installation. I was angry because the customer was new and important in our overall growth plans. I had asked the equipment manager to be on-site to oversee things, which he failed to do. While he checked in on the project, he never visited the site to ensure everything was correctly installed.

As VP of sales and marketing for North America, I carried a great deal of weight in the organization. Unfortunately, I berated the manager so badly two other executives complained to the president about how I handled the situation. This was not one of my better moments. After the "conversation" with the manager, I immediately regretted losing my temper.

It is never good to lose your temper, as it is not exactly a mature thing to do. I went back soon after the incident and apologized for my poor behavior. But, because the two execs went to the president, the situation could have turned out far worse than it did. The lesson I learned that day has stuck with me for the past 30+ years.

Let's find the answers to the above questions to see what we can learn from this mistake.

Who did it affect?

The situation impacted our customer, the manager, his on-site technicians, the company, and me.

What was the root cause?

The lack of on-site supervision by the manager, even though I had asked to attend to it personally.

How did or can it impact my life or career?

The incident hurt the sales results for which I was responsible. But losing my temper affected how others saw me and could have had consequences for my career with the company.

What can I do differently next time?

Wait until my emotions cool down instead of immediately confronting the manager. I could then calmly but firmly express my displeasure and ask how he could help fix the situation. I could also ask what he would do differently in the future to ensure the same issue does not happen again.

What lesson do I want to take from this mistake?

When someone in the company jeopardizes a customer relationship, I can wait until I calm down and am no longer triggered. I can then go to the person and ask what happened. Once I have gathered the facts, I can inquire what they can do to rectify the problem and how they will deal with similar circumstances should they reoccur. I must own my emotions and not allow them to spill over onto others. By doing so, I take responsibility for myself and act more maturely.

What wisdom can I take from this experience?

Be mature and do not speak when emotions are high. I must live the wisdom in the following quote:

"When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred." Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

While I hesitate to tell you the second lesson I learned from this real-life experience, I feel I must inform you that you can learn more than one thing from such a mistake.

After the two executives complained to the president about how hard I was on the equipment manager, the four of us met the next day. I expressed my concerns that we may lose a huge customer before using our products because of the installation failure. I also admitted I had lost my temper and had apologized to the equipment manager within an hour of the incident because I felt terrible about what I had done.

After saying this, the president made a statement that floored me and the other execs. He said, "Bill, although what you did was wrong, you did get your point across. It is good you apologized, but I'll bet he never makes that mistake again!" He was absolutely correct, as the mistake never happened again!

"All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes." Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Final thoughts

While this is only one example, you can see how asking yourself questions helps you better understand, learn, and make corrections in the future. All you need are the right questions and to give serious thought to the answers.

Why not apply this technique to one of your past mistakes. Choose something important and turn it into a lesson and wisdom! You can modify the questions to fit your situation or use them as is.

I leave you with the wisdom of one of our country's most famous forefathers:

"How do you become better tomorrow? By improving yourself, the world is made better. Be not afraid of growing too slowly. Be afraid of standing still. Forget your mistakes, but remember what they taught you. So how do you become better tomorrow? By becoming better today." Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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