“Good morning, this is Nathan,” I greeted the caller on my cubicle phone several years ago.
“Yes, this is Bill. I’m a Vice President at First Big Bank. I need to know where our $77 million is.”
“Uh, yes,” I gulped. “Well… do you have an account number?” I was working in the investor reporting department of a major financial institution at my first job out of college. A large commercial property had paid off that week and the payment was split between two separate beneficiaries. As I had entered the $77 million wire into the electronic payment system, I was already preparing my braggadocio about the large amounts of cash I routinely handled in my job (even though this was a special circumstance and was only “electronic” money). But now it looked as though my day was about to be ruined. As I checked the account, my fears were confirmed.
“Um, I think I’m going to have to call you back…” I mustered. Epic. Fail.
What is it about mistakes? We go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of them and then go to even greater lengths to hide them once they’ve happened. But what if we’re actually missing out on some of the best development there is? Let’s explore some of the benefits of making mistakes and see if we can come up with some alternatives.
Some of the Greatest Discoveries Were Born Out of Mistakes
The number of mistakes that led to eventual breakthroughs for inventors, engineers, researchers, and all kinds of people is nearly limitless. Thomas Edison conducted 9,000 failed experiments before inventing the light bulb. Eager to make an impression as a new publicly traded company, Ford Motor company lost a horrific amount of money on their Edsel automobile in the late 1950s. But from the mistake they were able to produce the Mustang, and later the Taurus. Walt Disney had to start his own business after his first cartoon series went bankrupt. He soon became a household name on his own. Whenever you try something new, there is always a chance of a breakthrough, even if it is not the breakthrough you intended to find.
Mistakes Are Some of the Best Learning Opportunities
Sometimes what we learn from failure actually benefits us more than the failure itself cost. We always ought to be able to learn something. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, said that, “Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong… until we can learn to do it right.” As an aside, I like to add that if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff out there! (Tweet) It’s great when we can learn from the mistakes of others, but when it’s your own snafu, the lesson can last a lifetime. This doesn’t just include a great invention like the Chick-fil-A sandwich. It can include any business, communication, leadership – virtually any kind of lesson.
You Can Never Know It All Before You Start
Sometimes the fear of making a mistake is greater than the actual mistake itself. Some leaders are more apt to be risk-minded than opportunity-minded. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. There are times when waiting for more information can help you avoid devastating losses. The flip side is also true. Sometimes waiting just makes dealing with a problem even more costly. Whatever your partiality toward mistakes, there will be times that require you move past your comfort zone (either toward or away).
So how did I cash in on my $77 million mistake? Well, as it turned out, I did in fact wire the $77 million to the wrong bank and earned myself a couple awkward conversations. But it turned out to not be that big of a deal. I simply emailed a new set of wiring instructions to bank #2 and they solved the problem. And no money was actually in danger since both accounting departments would’ve stayed open until all the accounts balanced. Sure, it was a bit embarrassing, but also a turning point for me in my young career. I discovered that working with numbers didn’t really interest me (doesn’t take a genius to figure that!). Instead I needed to be working with people and creating change. That day marked a turning point in my career pursuits. And the added benefit is that now this whole illustration works much better for me in presentations than if I had never goofed up in the first place!
What’s the biggest, worst, most embarrassing professional mistake you’ve ever made?
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or follow him on Twitter.