How I Cashed In on My Own $77 Million Mistake

February 18, 2013 — 12 Comments

“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.”

piles-of-money1

“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, speaker, and thought leader. To learn more about his services, visit NathanMagnuson.com/consulting or follow him on Twitter.
  • Joel

    Great post Nathan. It re-emphasizes how important our perspective is. Our perspective can bring “life” to any situation. In honor of President’s Day, Theodore Roosevelt said that “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

    • http://www.nathanmagnuson.com/ Nathan Magnuson

      Thanks for commenting, Joel. You brought up Roosevelt which reminded me of his “The Man in the Arena” quote. Now I’m motivated!

  • http://www.mondayisgood.com/ Tom Dixon

    I love how you tied this to making a career decision… You learned that you were in something you didn’t like and made a plan to change. So many people stay in something they don’t like – for lots of reasons. Do you ever do guest posts? Would love to have you expand this for my site.

    • http://www.nathanmagnuson.com/ Nathan Magnuson

      Thanks for the comment, Tom. It was a very shaping career moment in my life, but not the only one! I have made it a point to do some guest posts this year. Let me see if I can send you a message.

      • http://www.mondayisgood.com/ Tom Dixon

        I’d love to see it. I have guidelines at http://www.mondayisgood.com/guest-posting/ but am pretty open.

        • http://www.nathanmagnuson.com/ Nathan Magnuson

          Great Tom, I’ll check it out

  • http://danblackonleadership.com/ Dan Black

    We never like mistakes but they have a way of shaping us. Great examples of famous people who have capitalized on mistakes. Great post Nathan.

    • http://www.nathanmagnuson.com/ Nathan Magnuson

      It was a fun post to write and a fun illustration to speak about too, Dan. Thanks for the comment.

  • Stephan Dzur

    I think the greatest mistake I made was with the Army in 2004, when in Iraq I shut down the core network switch to our production network to install some software updates. Needless to say the commander wasn’t very happy about my choice of timing…but I learned a valuable lesson that day!

    • http://www.nathanmagnuson.com/ Nathan Magnuson

      Ya, I bet that wasn’t a very pleasant conversation, Stephan. But I also bet you never did it again!

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    As a PR person, I once coordinated an on-air interview. My job was to Email the DJ with questions to ask the interviewee (who we represented) so that the interviewer seemed familiar with the interviewee. This particular DJ was going to interview three different people we represented on three separate days.
    I Emailed the questions for the wrong person on the first day.

    I realized after the interview was scheduled to take place. I didn’t hear the interview but felt sick to my stomach.

    Then I found out later that the DJ’s email account (through the station) was down and he didn’t get a chance to look at the Email anyway – so he just winged it. Phew.

    • http://www.nathanmagnuson.com/ Nathan Magnuson

      Haha, I can identify with that feeling, Loren! Definitely had my share of “phew” moments!