WE all make mistakes. The most memorable blunders almost always turn out to be the best teachers in life. Some gaffes are easy to correct, while others are unfortunately not as simple. Some might even argue that epic slip-ups are necessary to achieve success – that we must fail in order to succeed. Perhaps one of the most popular lessons from failure is the story of Thomas Edison while work- ing on the light bulb. He famously dismissed the countless times his light bulb failed to work, saying he simply discovered the many ways his invention would not work.
A study does confirm that our brain learns better from mistakes. The researchers explain that our brain gets bigger as we learn new things, but eventually reverts back to its original size. Interestingly however, the brain collects and retains information or key lessons from mistakes before discarding the extra load.
So mistakes are imprinted in our memory so that we can learn from them. Entrepreneurs of late are adopting the mantra of “fail fast, fail often” for rapid improvement. Even the mighty Facebook (which turned 10 in early 2014) and Google focus on constant iteration, always learning from oversights. One could argue that they are lucky due to their environment where failure is not a taboo – encouraged, even – and you could be right. It’s possible that Silicon Valley is the most failure-friendly place on earth.
Nowhere else in the world publicly celebrates (or tolerates) mistakes as much as they do. They even have an Annual Failure Conference! But let’s be honest, entrepreneurs are not the only ones taking advantage of past errors. In this age of increasing intrapreneurs (entrepreneurs within organisations), we can all learn a thing or two about committing blunders in our careers.
1. JUMP INTO THE UNKNOWN
Without a doubt, there will be a lot of uncertainty in your career. Ask around and there is a good chance that a lot of people can relate to stories of being dragged into meetings or projects without clear expectations or direction (all too famil- iar), regular inconsistencies in courses of action, and a whole list of annoyances. Uncertainty is terrifying. Some might enjoy it, but it is not for everyone.
While the unknown can conjure all sorts of excitement, it is after all an opportunity for the bold to take charge and shape the out- come. It’s the sheer scale of how things can go wrong is what deters most people from stepping into it. But what if there is a pot of gold at the end of it?
How bad can things turn out? Instead of going against it, why not try to ride on it. As with mastering any skills, the sooner (and more frequently) you learn to deal with uncertainty, the better you will be. Forced outside your comfort zone, you might be sur- prised at how resourceful you can be. Improvisation will kick in, the need for rapid improvement will arise, and suddenly, everything will seem so fluid.
You may make mistakes at first, but you will learn a great deal about getting things done, and you will become a better version of yourself. Take the example of Elon Musk, the enig- matic founder of several game changers com- panies such as Tesla (luxury electric cars) and SpaceX (space transport services). With SpaceX, Musk’s vision is to create multi-planetary human colony starting with Mars.
The only problem is, nobody has the technology or even the resources to do it. His solution? To design his own rockets. Musk actually learned how to design and build rockets on his own. And it all started as a conversation with a friend during a drive home. Uncertainty could very well be that trigger and catalyst to propel you to achieve beyond what you ever envisioned you could. It isn’t easy, no doubt, but nothing worthwhile is going to be easy in our careers. So go ahead, make that leap of faith into unfamiliar territories. You never know what might happen.
2. COMMIT A COMMUNICATION BLUNDER
Ever experienced the following embarassing situations before? Clicking that “Reply All” button when you intended to correspond only with the original sender? Or forgetting to attach that important file to the client? The topic of digital communication, in this case email etiquette, is increasingly popu- lar. Our ability to communicate effectively reflects our personality and character, wheth- er it be traits like attention to detail or tact. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to make a blunder.
We’ll remember the repur- cussions and likely not commit it again. After an experience of reacting rashly in a situation, we’ll remember that when faced with a tricky issue, responding is a better option than reacting! When we react, emotions get the better of us and without knowing the smallest issue can turn into a major fiasco. Responding mindfully requires self-knowl- edge and practised discipline and is a much more effective approach to improve any situ- ation. We also need to be bold enough to try out different communication styles.
Great communication is a core attribute of stellar leadership. The late Steve Jobs is an example of a great communicator. Some of his methods were unorthodox, even extreme in certain cases, but the impressive results speak for themselves – both at Apple and Pixar.
3. GIVE UP EASILY
“Grossly entitled, least willing to put in time and effort, and downright lazy.” These are some of the words hurled at Gen-Y in the workplace today. The words may ring true in most cases, but perhaps more importantly, this generational tension is a sign of changing times. Given technological advancements we have made, the younger generation is more open to challenging the status quo and embracing new possibilities.
It’s not all bad. The US department of labour reported that 65% of near-future jobs have not yet been invented. With such stag- gering figure, maybe there is a solid reason to change how we do things. But, Gen-Y or not, not working hard to achieve a particular desired outcome is not a valid excuse. And once again, we learn this lesson best when we have missed out on an opportunity to build something great because we gave up too easily.
The founders of the popular messaging app WhatsApp pressed on through obstacles in the early stages of development (the app kept crashing and had very few active users). But today, they are billionaires with world- wide success.
If you’d like a practical tip on how to ensure you don’t repeat this mistake of giving up too early, here is one: take more breaks. In Steven Covey’s massively famous 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he mentions “sharpening your saw”. In our quest for continuous improvement, balance is imperative for sustainability, and we must spend time renewing our resources and energy. Quite simply, Covey advocates regular breaks so your body and spirit can rejuvenate and function at an optimum level, sustain- ably.
This is supported by studies of cognitive load theory, confirming our finite working memory. Taking brief naps can help the brain proc- ess information better, preventing overload in the hippocampus (memory faculty) and bet- ter storage of memories in the neocortex. In simple words, your memory and brain will function better with naps, and this should help you function more effectively in the long-term. So keep striving, but do listen to your body and soul when it’s time to take a breather. This brings us to the next point.
4. DON’T KNOW WHEN TO QUIT
You’ve given everything you have. But things are just not happening the way you had hoped. Slowly, the cloud of doubt grows over your head, and you question your capa- bilities. What now? Do you keep pushing on, or surrender in defeat? As it turns out, driving an initiative through until so-called “failure” might not necessarily be a defeat. It could even be a blessing in disguise.
The founders of Instagram originally created an app for whiskey connoisseurs, and it did not take off. Despite the failure, they learned that users were sharing photos from the app instead. They iterated and Instagram was born and eventually acquired for an impressive sum of money. There are situations, however, where you do need to be honest with yourself and call it quits. But here are some key questions you will have to ask yourself before doing that. Is your knowledge base current?
Are you out of sync with circumstances, ideas and time? Is your network expanding? Your propen- sity to impact change is based on your ability to network, make new connections, and find new ideas. If you find yourself stuck in the same spot where you started some time ago, then maybe it is time to seriously consider moving on. How about your work responsibilities? Do they get more demanding or challenging? Are you engaged at all in what you are doing on a daily basis? Or are you seeking for more?
These are not trick questions. It is not even about you quitting your job. Rather, it is a question of whether or not you want to move to the next level. You need to move on when things are not, but ideally only after you have exhausted all resources at your disposal.
5. MISS OUT ON OPPORTUNITIES
So you are minding your own business, building up your reputation and credibility. You naively think that your work will prove itself, along with the deservedly promotion and pay raise. The moment someone else gets the coveted role/project you were eyeing, you finally wake up! You find yourself incredibly disappointed. But you’ve worked so hard to earn it! How dare they look past you when you have enslaved yourself rigorously for months/years. It’s one thing to let the whole world know how good you are, another to tactfully make yourself useful to everyone.
That said, jumping on every opportunities out there might not be helpful. For one, you could overload yourself for trying to help every single soul. Unless you can be absolutely sure that is what you are capable of, it is better to filter. Learn to say no once in a while, but do it in a respectable manner. Here are some tips on how to say no from Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take:
● The Deferral: Indicate that you’re unavailable cur- rently, but will follow up soon. If it really is important, the passionate and persistent will wait for you out of respect for your time. They will connect when you are less busy. These are the people you want and should offer help to.
● The Referral: You’re not the right person, but you will connect them to someone who is. If you are not in the best posi- tion to solve the problem, avoid making it worse. Get help from someone qualified. Make the intro- duction, and there is a good chance that they will return the favour when the time calls for it. But make sure both sides are okay with it. The last thing you want is impos- ing on the help.
● The Bridge: Get two people who are on the same track together. Make mutually ben- eficial connections. If you know someone who is on a particu- lar project, connect them to someone else who is/was on a similar task. Automatically you have set up a support system and they will thank you for it.
6. TAKE ON OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE WRONG REASONS
As in the previous point, it is best to filter all available offers on the table. You cannot possibly commit to all, but it can take some bad experiences of taking the wrong things on to realise this. Here are some tips on how to avoid repeat- ing this mistake.
● Set up filter s Don’t spread your resources too thin, and establish a clear direction early on. Have spe- cific criteria that truly align with your values and aspirations. Assess your own capabilities and never let yourself be blinded by what is up ahead. Remember, your reputation can be on the line.
● Have a clear objective It always help to start with why. Watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk on the subject and you will understand how it will benefit your path to success. It reflects who you are and you will go a long way. Establish your why, then make decisions accordingly.
● Know your limit Once you commit to a task, never leave it half-done. A half-hearted effort on any opportunity will likely end up with half- hearted results. Better yet, before you even commit, consider your limits to avoid a half- baked result.
7. IGNORE WHAT REALLY MATTERS
What got you to where you are today? Was it family pressure? Money and fame? Stability and perks? Or was it passion? How many of us can proudly say they are passionate about what they do day in day out? Apart from the need to live and provide, what is the single thing that matters to you the most? If things don’t seem to align in your world today, that is a great stepping stone to great- er self-awareness.
Just like Edison, you have the benefit of knowing where you don’t want to be or what you don’t want to do anymore. In the context of selecting a career, con- sider what really matters to you. It’s a deci- sion that should be taken very seriously, and it should be an intentional choice that you make for yourself. Enjoying what you do is often regarded as luxury, but can’t you count it a necessity? Stop to consider what matters to you. Sometimes it is in misaligned places that we can best identify our priorities.
Lives are a long journey, and mistakes must be embraced as a friend. In hindsight, sometimes, they are the best friends you could ever have hoped for.
Imran Hashim is a talent acceleration manager with Leaderonomics. A big fan of taking calculated risks and a keen student of past mistakes, he embraces regular faults. Experience is what you get when mistakes happen. To learn more about Leaderonomics, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for more articles to read.