Mistakes that Work – Choosing to Turn Loss into Victory

learn from your mistakes

Recently, I have been reading my eight-year-old son, Mario, a book called Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions and How They Came to Be. You might be surprised to learn just how many everyday items came from mistakes, including potato chips, Coca Cola, Silly Putty, and even X-rays. I am sure the maker of Coca-Cola was not disappointed when he monetized that mistake!

The truth is, we all make mistakes. However, it is not the mistake that defines us, but our reaction. My favorite quote of this nature comes from Rocky Balboa in the final of his movie series. He is lined up to fight a character about 30 years younger than him, once again, against all odds, and says to his son that life is remarkably simple:

“It’s not about how hard you get hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and get back up… that’s how winning is done.”

We will all fail this week, and next, and the one after that… but the encouragement I offer to our powerful female readers this week includes the following three main points.

Never Give Up Because Quitters Never Win, and Winners Never Quit

There have been many times in my business life that I wanted to give up. Sometimes it was as simple as a difficult day at the office; other times as complicated as major corporate reorganization. But all the times related to some sort of mistake that I made.

Between the birth of my first and second children, I found lobbying so difficult, that I decided to give up on the industry. For me, this was a “mistake that worked”. I found a local business school to attend and some in-house corporate relations work that I could do on the side, and I decided that I was meant for the non-profit world.

I thought this would be easier, less cutthroat, and better suited for a mother. But I quickly learned that there was no denying my destiny to be a lobbyist. Regardless of what I did in the new role, I ended up somehow transforming myself back into a fixer. When it came time to graduate and start applying for jobs, I was terrified.

I had been out of the lobbying industry for two years – who knew what had happened to my contacts!? Did they even remember me? How would I get my clients back or find new ones?

After a few strokes of luck, I was soon back into a senior role at one of the largest lobbying firms in Boston; this time, armed with business experience and an MBA. Suddenly, compared to other lobbyists, I was dangerous.

I knew how to grow a company’s bottom line. More importantly, I knew how to grow my own bottom line. I understood what many in the industry never considered – how to tie lobbying efforts to a return on investment (ROI) for companies… and how to be an entrepreneur in a very defined, very stereotypical industry.

Along the way to creating a more unique and ROI-driven lobbying firm, there have been many bumps and bruises. A10 Associates is not the right lobbying firm for every company. Nowadays, I am okay with that. But, because I have not given up, we are in fact the largest woman-owned lobbying firm in the country. Every day, I have twenty young women looking up to me as their leader. They seek knowledge from me on how to be a professional, kind, and strong woman that never gives up.

Albert Einstein said, “Never, never, never give up!”

Thank goodness he did not because one of his greatest career failures ultimately became a huge success. Einstein graduated from college unemployed, and few people know that he failed hundreds of times at his famous theory of relativity before it worked out. It took him 8 years to complete his theory, and he was initially labeled bizarre by his colleagues. They laughed at him for making mistakes until he finally learned so much and made so many adjustments that he was able to create the very theory that is the building block of physics.

Without Einstein’s mistake that finally worked, we could not begin to understand space and time the way we do today… Which means no air travel, no satellites, no global positioning system (GPS) on our phones, no television, and no radar… just to name a few things! So next time something is challenging, do not be so quick to give up.

Learn from Your Mistakes

“It is good to learn from your mistakes. Even better to learn from others’ mistakes.” – Warren Buffet

Every mistake is simply an opportunity… an opportunity to give up, to blame, to complain, or to learn and grow. What you decide in these defining moments is whether you will win or lose from your mistake.

One of the biggest mistakes I make personally is quickly becoming emotional about things. For years, I tried to explain it away based on stress, lack of sleep, being a new mom… even the stress of my career. But the hard truth was that I needed to learn from making mistakes that gave me an emotional hangover.

Constantly pressed for time and energy, I would immediately react to things when I became emotional, compounding problems and shutting down my ability to learn from mistakes.

Making a Change for the Better

About 8 months ago, I started to take notice of others, including those who I greatly admire, who were overreacting and creating havoc in their own lives. I saw how they were unnecessarily hurting themselves and others. I took note of the major consequences people were facing from uninhibited emotions and the liabilities that other successful industry leaders were creating for themselves by losing their tempers. I thought long and hard about if I wanted to turn out the same in my career and what I could do to be better.

Since then, I have made it a point to wait to be reactive and to think before I act. Instead of instantly responding, I take 24 hours to think, sleep on it, and get ahead of situations that will cause me to overreact. I found friends I can confide in and lean on, and now present myself every day and in every situation with intention.

Recently, those around me have started to notice my changed reactivity and it has made a significant impact on those around me, including my team. Many of my employees have commented that in recent weeks when our team has made mistakes, there has been a shift to them recovering by learning, taking notes to follow up on these learning situations, and shifting the emotions out of the discussion. The dramatic emotion has left the building, and it has been replaced with solutions, tactics, and strategies. What better way to spend energy than on solutions versus reactions?

Oprah Teaches Us to Learn from Mistakes

Oprah Winfrey is a great example of a powerful woman who learned from her mistakes early on in her career. At the age of 23, she was publicly fired as a television (TV) anchor in Baltimore for being too emotionally attached to her projects. Oprah was humiliated, told that she was unfit for television, and was shaken to her very core. However, she learned from the experience.

A few years later, she found that a TV talk show was a much better fit for her engaging personality. The show aired for 25 seasons, and she became one of the most famous, successful, and wealthy women in the world – all while exercising her greatest passion – which was to use her emotion to tell other peoples’ stories.

Own Your Mistakes

The winners are those who learn to take full responsibility for their actions. The losers are those who blame others for their failures.

I recently read a story in the Washington Post that said over 60% of Americans struggle to say I am sorry. From there, I started googling, “Why do people have a hard time apologizing”

Chat GPT, a website I have banned my company from using because I only want my team to create original thoughts, popped up on the side bar of my computer in this instance saying, “People do not apologize because they have a weak sense of self, they are afraid of being vulnerable, and they lack empathy.” Not a bad analysis for artificial intelligence!

The past few years, being in the customer service industry, I have begun to actively practice saying, “I am sorry.” Based on my personal experience, Chat GPT may not be wrong in this instance. I had to get to a personal state that I was comfortable enough with myself to admit defeat, admit wrongdoing, and own mistakes. This is not always easy to do.

Over time, owning a mistake and moving on has actually served to motivate and secure my self-worth versus destroy it. There is something to be said for owning a situation, taking responsibility, and fixing it – versus hiding, blaming, and faking.

Presidents Who Learned from Mistakes

Taking responsibility for a mistake is the first step to learn, move on and change behavior. It can also be a way to turn the tables and help others. Did you know that only 7 times in modern history, U.S. Presidents have admitted wrongdoing? However, of the 6 who have done so (George W. Bush admitted wrongdoing twice… Bless his heart), five of them actually enjoyed higher approval ratings afterward. This is because the American people saw their human nature and were able to much more forgiving towards a President that was able to admit he made a mistake and own it – versus blaming others.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan publicly apologized for his Administration’s role in the Iran Contra Scandal – openly saying on prime-time television: “Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem… You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes. And if you’ve lived your life properly — so, you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.”

However, President Nixon, who initially fought all allegations and the impeachment process, ended up being forced to resign. The closest he came to an apology was saying that he “regretted any injuries he may have caused” as though his statement was perfectly scripted by a team of lawyers to make it as sterile as possible. In fact, a year later, NBC news actually filmed a feature article on his “non apology” titled, “The Art of Not Apologizing.” Ouch.

Ultimately, we all know that history remembered President Reagan much better than President Nixon. Like President Reagan, we all must give ourselves and others peace by owning our mistakes, apologizing, and moving on.

It’s Your Turn to Try Learning from Your Mistakes

This week, we all will make mistakes. Let’s not let them get us down, let’s handle them like the “girl bosses” we are. Let’s never give up, learn from our mistakes, and own the responsibility. Every day, we have the individual opportunity to be the change we each want to see in the world, and today we can take the first step by leaning to react better when we make mistakes.

I challenge you to step back when mistakes are made in the near term and look for ways to learn from them. Do not shy away from apologizing and help others to proceed with grace and poise.  

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