The Right Way to Make Mistakes


Dealing with the aftermath of a blunder can be painful. Mistakes are messy, embarrassing, costly and, above all, prove we are not perfect. But perfection should not be what we are striving for in our careers anyway — in fact, it’s a fallacy.

If we’re taking risks, as we should, we will make mistakes; the key is to make them the right way.

First, forget the idea that mistakes are “bad.” In actuality, they are crucial. If there are no mistakes in a company, then no one is taking a risk and innovation will atrophy.

Many of the most successful companies can all be traced back to a career-risk failure. However, if that failure hadn’t been handled the right way, the outcome would have been very different. It’s what we do after making a mistake, how we deal with the consequences, that ultimately leads us to victory.

When managing the fallout of our own failure, it can feel like we’re picking through the rubble to see what’s salvageable. It’s all too easy to seal yourself away in your office and ignore the ensuing problems.

However, what happens after a mistake is made can provide a valuable, unique opportunity if it’s handled properly.

First, Know the Risk of NOT Taking Risks

Dr. Robert Cade, armed with his new creation — a sports drink called Gatorade — went to the product managers of Stokely-Van Camp, a canned soup company, to pitch the product. After they turned him down, Dr. Cade went to the executive vice president’s office instead. He loved the idea, and the rest is history — Gatorade put sports drinks on the map. The only ones who made a mistake in this instance were the project managers who weren’t willing to take the risk.

No one actually likes to make a mistake, but mistakes will happen if you take risks. Or, in the case of the Stokely-Van Camp product managers, if you don’t.

When You Make a Mistake, Accept the Responsibility

In the wake of a career mistake, it does no good to point fingers. Not only does it look childish and desperate, but it does not pay off to pin the blame on someone else.

Sometimes, we have to bow our heads and accept the responsibility. Renowned architect I.M. Pei is a wonderful example of accepting responsibility for your mistakes.

While he was striving for originality and innovation in designing Boston’s John Hancock Tower, it took only some heavy winds to reveal the flaw in his firm’s design. Several 500-pound windows crashed to the streets below. The result was a $75-million project that ballooned to $175 million and took an extra five years to complete. While Pei had not designed the tower himself, his firm’s name was on the plans, so he took responsibility.

With humility and perseverance, we can move forward and improve. Pei had integrity, the kind that engenders respect. People make mistakes, but the biggest mistake is failing to learn from past mistakes.

Check Your Attitude and Look for the Lessons

To extract the most learning from your mistakes, first consider how you talk to yourself about them. Do you wallow in self-recrimination? Do you amplify the negativity? That can be self-defeating and make you too cautious to stretch again.

When it comes to your mistakes, look realistically at what went wrong.

Could it have been anticipated? Could it have been prevented? What could you or your team or your company have done differently?

Oprah is a good example of what can be gained from a healthy approach to mistakes. In 2011, when the Oprah Winfrey Network was losing money, this is what she said in her commencement speech at Harvard University:

“Now when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. When that moment comes, it’s really okay to feel bad for a little while. Give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost — but then, here’s the key: Learn from every mistake, because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are.”

Others Are Watching, So Set the Right Example

It’s common for your career risks to affect more people than just you, especially when it comes to your team or coworkers. Always remember that your behaviour in the wake of a mistake will affect how others view or perceive you. Staff or coworkers will watch how you handle a mistake. If you ignore it, people generally won’t say anything, but they will harbour the view that you won’t come to grips with your mistakes.

I’ve had many top executives tell me they’re not going to talk about mistakes, and I always tell them it will hurt them, and their company, to not speak up and address them when they happen.

By owning up and handling a situation with humility, energy and positivity, you are setting the best example for your company or organization.

Don’t Stop at Prototype 5,126 (Persevere!)

These days, Dyson is a household name, making vacuum cleaners, commercial hand dryers, bladeless fans and air purifiers, but it all started with James Dyson and 5,127 prototypes.

After 15 years of pitching mistake after mistake, finally, when he pitched a suitable product to English retailers, none took the bite, so he launched it in Japanese catalogues, where it became a quick success.

With calculated risk-taking, you also need perseverance. Good thing James Dyson believed in what he was attempting, persevered and didn’t stop at prototype number 5,126.

Keep On Striving for Imperfection

A company that believes it’s perfect will die out.

If you already think you’re always right, well, you’re wrong. And you close yourself off from good ideas and discourage employees from suggesting them.

For Jeff Bezos, perfection has never outweighed the importance of innovation. His online auction site, zShops, fizzled out, as did Amazon’s Fire smartphone, which ended in a quarterly loss of $170 million.

In a Washington Post article, Bezos told them, “If you think that’s a big failure, we’re working on much bigger failures right now. And I am not kidding…Some of them are going to make the Fire phone look like a tiny little blip.”

On another occasion, Bezos told shareholders failure and invention are inseparable twins.

Closing Thoughts

There is no guarantee that your mistakes will lead to huge successes like a household-name sports drink, a great vacuum cleaner or a successful TV network. The art of mistake making is a tricky business. When you calculate a risk, you must decide when to take a leap of faith and when to step back from one. That is not easy, but it is worth doing.

From the clear-eyed examination of a mistake can come the kernel of another idea. Original ideas may fail, but from them, something even better may come along. But even if something better does not come from it, the lessons learned can pay off in other ways in your life.

Sometimes, the lesson from getting something wrong is stronger than having the right answer in the first place.



Robert L. Dilenschneider is author of the bestselling book, The Ultimate Guide to Power & Influence: Everything You Need to Know. He has authored 18 books, including A Briefing for Leaders, The Public Relations Handbook, Decisions, and Nailing It. For more information, visit

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