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Don't Let a Good Mistake Go to Waste

Why sweeping your mistakes under the rug is a colossal waste and what you should do instead.
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To err is human, poets tell us, but common sense offers an addendum to this old adage: to err repeatedly in the exact same way is just plain stupid.

Mistakes may be unavoidable and universal but how we respond to them varies considerably, according to psychologists. Some of us, it seems, react to mistakes with feelings of shame and inadequacy. Others respond not by beating themselves up for their stupidity but by framing the error as a chance to learn and grow. The first group thinks of their ability as a fixed quantity; the second as a work in progress. Any one want to guess who does better in the long run?

So if learning from mistakes is a key part in maximizing your potential, why do so many of us rush to brush every stumble under the mental rug? And what could we do instead? Elaine Wherry, the co-founder of chat site Meebo (which was acquired by Google last year), offered a suggestion recently. How about a mistake diary? The WSJ reported on her talk:

Using a series of sketchbooks, she started taking notes and making drawings to record her mistakes – such as time-management problems and hyper-perfectionism — as a personal way to remember them.  “I wanted to be able to reflect on them later, so I wouldn’t beat myself up during the week,” she says. “It was a way to get more sleep.”

But as Wherry began hiring more employees, many straight out of college and new to the workforce, she started seeing them repeat mistakes she had made. So she compiled a list of her most common blunders and shared it with her employees.

Want to see what the final product looks like? Check out this slideshow. But drawing skills aren't required to put your mistakes to positive use. Wherry is not the only one advocating for fare more openness about errors and other ideas require absolutely no artistic ability. Columbia University academic Chris Blattman, for example, has written on his blog about our obsession with best practices and the need to be far more candid about our worst missteps.

"We talk endlessly of best practices in development, peacebuilding, business. You name it. I heard an excellent idea at a conference last week: why don’t we write more about worst practices?" he suggests, concluding, "we need volumes and volumes on worst practices."

In the spirit of Wherry and Blattman, what's one worst practice you could share for the benefit of other business owners? 

 

IMAGE: chaparral/Flickr
Last updated: Apr 15, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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