It's cliché to say mistakes are part of the entrepreneurial journey. The reality, though, with clichés is they reveal important lessons, assuming you seek to understand the logic buried in the platitudes. Most of us, however, quickly dismiss clichés as irrelevant, an idea that's lost its luster. Consequently, we minimize or overlook the lesson.

There are lessons in business that maintain their relevance and are timeless. Learning from mistakes is still a wise teacher to anyone willing to stop, examine, and regroup from a colossal screw-up or a minor misstep. The trick, however, is to quickly work through the emotions linked to a mistake or the fear of making one.

It's the emotions that trip us up. They can lead to faulty conclusions that we often hold on to as universal truths: "I don't ever want to experience that again!" "I'll never trust someone with my idea again." If we're not careful, we believe these conclusions, preventing us from taking risks or accepting challenges that push us outside our comfort zone. We teach ourselves to avoid the feelings linked to the previous mistakes. As Yoda might say, "Mistake, unwise it is to avoid it."

Responding to Mistakes

Researchers from The Chinese University of Hong Kong identified two types of responses after making a mistake: blaming approach and problem-solving approach

The blaming approach leads to destructive behaviors: punishing or embarrassing those involved, avoiding taking ownership, hiding or denying that a mistake was ever made. No amount of learning will surface when these behaviors dominate your thoughts or interactions with others.

The problem-solving approach is a positive response to gaffes, blunders, or even a total blowout. As you might assume, stopping to evaluate where and why things went sideways leads to new insights and, possibly, stronger relationships with those involved.

We choose how we respond to any outcome. The wisest one is often the hard choice. Or, as Ryan Holiday writes, the obstacle is the way.

Wisdom Learned from Mistakes

There is an 80's Tootsie Pop commercial that features a wise owl and an inquisitive boy. The boy asks the owl, "How many licks does it take to get to the tootsie roll center of a Tootsie Pop?" More than willing to answer the boy's question, the wise owl licks the candy and declares it takes three licks as he chews the candy of its stick. Well, the owl was mistaken. Or was it the boy?

According to the Tootsie company, several "scientific endeavors" have focused on finding a more precise answer. A doctoral student at the University of Michigan developed a "customized licking machine" and discovered it took 411 licks to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop.  So, the owl was mistaken. But, don't overlook the boy's response to the owl eating his candy; he quickly learns he does not like smart owls and walks away.

In this cheeky example, there are some lessons about mistakes that can make us wiser.

  1. Don't dramatize your mistakes.
  2. Be curious about what happened. Don't be mad that it happened.
  3. Don't always listen to what others tell you.

Skip Prichard, CEO of a global nonprofit, and author of The Book of Mistakes, has a few more pearls of wisdom.

Don't work on someone else's dream. Prichard says, "Keep your focus on what is fulfilling, energizing, and drives you." Most entrepreneurs are driven to build their dream. Not everyone has that same drive. Some want to do meaningful work in someone else's company. Just don't make the mistake of not knowing what would get you out of bed each morning.

Stop accepting excuses. "The most important microphone in the world is the one in your mind. It can be one of excuses or voices that encourage you to succeed," says Prichard. Guard your thoughts against your own negativity or influence from negative ninjas who want to karate chop any idea you might have. The mistake here? Not surrounding yourself with quality people who help you overcome the excuse-making lizard brain.

Mistakes, gaffes, faux pas, failed attempts are part of the exploration of fine-tuning your product or service. Without them, you won't know the limits and possibilities of what you can do. Nobody wins playing on the sidelines. Cliché? Absolutely.

Published on: Feb 8, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.