How to Make Fewer Mistakes -- And Get the Most Out of the Ones You Can't Help Making

I'm something of a professional when it comes to mistakes. I believe mistakes can be our best teachers. Here is some of what they have taught me.
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I'm something of a professional when it comes to mistakes. I have not one but two different jobs devoted to evaluating the mistakes of corporate executives and filmmakers. And I am a gifted amateur as well, with boatloads of mistakes of my own. I believe mistakes can be our best teachers. Here is some of what they have taught me.

  • Give your full attention to what you are doing. There is no such thing as multi-tasking. There is only rapidly vacillating single-tasking that has your brain careening back and forth in milliseconds between two or more different ideas. And each switch means that you are neglecting something. Instead of thinking about the office when you are cooking, think about the work that went into bringing the ingredients to your home and the nourishment they will bring to your family. Instead of letting emails and phone calls constantly interrupt a work project, put everything else aside for 45 minutes, leaving the last 15 minutes of each hour for a break to catch up and then go back to the project with your full attention.
  • Listen to what you are telling yourself. If you repeatedly make foolish mistakes in one area of your life, that is an SOS from you to you that you need to listen to carefully. We make our worst mistakes when we are trying to pretend something matters to us more than it really does. The most honest you are with yourself about where you really want to be and what you want to do, the fewer conflicts you will have to prevent you from getting it right the first time.
  • Take full responsibility for mistakes with a sincere and gracious apology and whatever steps are necessary to repair or clean up the mess. Full accountability for a mistake is the best way to reprogram yourself to avoid that mistake in the future. It is necessary not just for your relationship to the affected parties but for your sense of yourself as a capable and worthy person. You don't need to grovel. But do not try to qualify it. No Nixonian "mistakes were made" or Clintonian "it depends what your definition of 'is' is." Do not blame anyone else. Even if it was the fault of the traffic or the intern or the weather or the WiFi or not getting the right instructions, acknowledge that it is your responsibility to factor all of those contingencies into your efforts to get whatever it is done right. And do not put the afflicted party in the position of having to tell you what is necessary for a fix. If you break something, repair or replace it. If you forget something, substitute something better. If you embarrass someone, make sure everyone who saw or heard it knows that it is your fault. A hand-written note on nice stationery shows sincerity. Flowers are thoughtful. You will learn that it is not as painful as you think. You will discover that the more you apologize, the easier it gets. On the contrary, the better the apology, the faster and deeper the healing for you as well as the affected party.
  • Align your incentives. Avoid sending mixed signals to yourself or others by telling them you want one thing and rewarding them for doing something else. The financial crisis happened because too many people were paid based on the quantity of transactions rather than the quality of the transactions. Companies fail because CEO pay rewards them for failure. Give a 1-year-old spaghetti and there will be an adorable mess. Give the same 1-year-old ice cream and there will be less mess. Even a baby will be more careful if the payoff is more sugary, creamy deliciousness. If you are making mistakes, be honest with yourself about what benefit you are receiving from not getting it right. And then make whatever changes are necessary so that you are not conflicted about what you should be doing.

No one wants to make mistakes. But that does not mean we should be afraid of them. The biggest mistake of all is being so cautious that we stop taking risks. When I was 7, my parents signed me up for ice skating lessons. The teacher told us that the first thing he would teach us was the most important: how to fall down. "You're going to be doing it a lot, so you had better learn how to do it right." Not being afraid of hurting myself or afraid of being embarrassed was the best lesson I got for skating and for much, much more.

Share your stories about mistakes, apologies given and received, and lessons learned in the comments. I'd love to hear them.

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