How to Turn a Mistake to Your Advantage

Sometimes the best lessons aren’t the ones we were looking for.

Kids don’t know how good they have it. Boundless energy, little responsibility, and carte blanche to make mistakes. But, like Saturday morning cartoons, all good things come to an end. Lack of sleep and unhealthy diets catch up with us, our stewardships increase, and we develop this crazy notion that we have to be perfect.

Are you perfect? I’m not. Neither is your brother, or the guy who cut you off this morning, or the Ken and Barbie couple with the perfect hair that sit in the third pew. We compare ourselves at our worst to everyone’s polished personas, and it’s no wonder we come away thinking everyone else is perfect, we’re the only ones that make mistakes.

The most successful people you see around you aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, and they’ve learned how to own their mistakes and shape the experience into something from which they can learn and grow.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/goir

  1. Admit you made a mistake. Don’t sugar-coat it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to justify yourself. Don’t deny it. Face it square-on: you screwed up. This isn’t easy if you’re not used to it. We want to be perfect, but we’re not; the sooner we can admit that, the sooner we can start getting better.

  2. Apologize, if necessary. You may need to apologize as part of making things right. Offer a sincere apology for what you did. Don’t apologize for being caught, and don’t say you’re “sorry if I offended you.” Those aren’t apologies.

  3. Figure out what went wrong. This usually comes down to poor judgement—you made a bad decision. Step back and figure out why you made that decision. This can be tough and take a lot of introspection. Did you try to take a shortcut instead of paying the price? Did you make the best decision you could have, based on limited or incorrect information? Keep asking why until you get to the heart of the matter.

    Occasionally, this will come down to something that was seemingly out of your control. Don’t throw your hands up and curse the Fates. How well you plan for disruptive contingencies is completely within your control.

  4. Accept responsibility for what you do. You are responsible for what you do. Not your parents, not society, not the guy who cut you off. You can’t blame anyone else for your choices—they’re yours. That can be tough to face. The upside? Change is completely under your control, too. If you don’t like what you’re doing, make different choices.

  5. Learn from it. This is the key to owning your mistakes. Make them work for you. Thomas Edison famously may or may not have said that he hadn’t failed, but had discovered ten thousand ways not to make a light bulb. You’re learning how to be you—how to be a great parent, a great employee, a great person. Failure is part of learning.

  6. Let it go. Once you’ve identified what went wrong and learned from the mistake, let it go. Don’t define yourself by it. We all did dumb, rash things as teenagers. It’s part of growing up. We all have moments in our first job we wish we could do over. It happens. So you made a mistake. You didn’t know any better. Now you do.

Even if you do nothing more than admit you made a mistake and accept responsibility for it, you’re already ahead of many people. You know people who refuse to admit when they’re wrong and forge ahead, hoping that enough wrongs will somehow make them right. Don’t be that guy.

Question: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve turned to your advantage? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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