Failing Up: The Blessing of Mistakes

Posted August 23, 2011

Mistakes are part of the human condition.  By nature we are utterly imperfect beings.  Eventually, we screw up in everything we do: relationships, finances, business, you name it.  We can’t help it.

What we can help, however, is how we react to these mistakes.  We can blame them on others, on circumstance, on getting a raw deal.  Or we can own up to them, and learn from them.  Few things in life are as powerful as the epiphany that comes from truly learning from a good mistake.

Over the 20 years I ran my event firm, I made every mistake in the book, both in terms of event management, and in business management.  I was pretty determined, however, to not make the same mistake twice.  (OK, sometimes I made it twice, but definitely not three times.)

Running events, by definition, entails glitches, things that don’t go according to plan. I used to tell prospective clients that anyone who tells you they’ll produce a flawless event is full of crap.  Events become fluid, moving things and take on a life of their own.  At some point, you simply have to pray to the event gods, regardless of how much planning you’ve done.

What separates the men from the mice, so to speak, is how we react to these glitches.  Whether it’s your event, your business or your personal life, it can be incredibly liberating to own the reaction and response to whatever comes your way.  The jerk on the highway who cut you off didn’t make you mad; you made yourself mad.  You can’t control the highway jerk, but you CAN control how you react to him.

Tavis Smiley, a talk show host on NPR, wrote a book with the absolutely coolest name, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Business Success From Failure”. The premise is to enlighten us on how useful and instructive failures can be.  Thomas Edison is famous for pointing out about the numerous failed attempts at creating the light bulb: I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

George Santayana

Stellar service-driven organizations in our industry are know for how they respond to problems.  Years ago I stayed at the Four Seasons hotel in Bali, and the final night of my stay, some genius in banquet sales decided to book a beach party for a pharmaceutical sales team, that ran into the wee hours of the night.  Needless to say I got no sleep, and my calls to the front desk were of limited utility.  The next morning, ready to storm the castle, I asked to speak to the manager.  He had a full write-up of the previous night’s problem, and began by apologizing profusely, and said, “Would you allow me to please comp your stay last night.”  This far exceeded anything I’d expected, and to this day I walked away raving about the hotel’s response, instead of their screw up.

When the philosopher George Santayana said, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” clearly he’s referring to past mistakes.  Hitler invading Russia in the winter, and failing to learn the lessons of Napoleon’s blunder doing the same thing over a century earlier.  That kind of thing.

The world is imperfect, and we are imperfect.  Yet every imperfection, every mistake, has an opportunity buried inside it.  It lies there, waiting for us to seize it.  Will you grasp it, use it, and grow from it?  Or will you be blinded by the mistake itself, and let it slip away?

3 COMMENTS

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  1. Howard
    Mitchell Beer
    August 23, 2011 at 9:23 am Permalink

    That was a useful and wise post, Howard.
    For so long, flawless execution has been a meetings industry mantra. But as you point out, it makes much more sense to tell our clients — and ourselves — that we’ll do our best to catch and anticipate all the details so that we can be ready to adapt when, not if, the scene begins to shift onsite.
    In a pre-interview for a conference we covered last month, one of the keynotes commented that anything worth doing is worth doing *wrong*. “If you never try it, it’s an opportunity lost,” he said, so the way to take action is to “do it, do it wrong, learn from that, and then do it better.”

  2. Howard
    Lisa Hurley
    August 23, 2011 at 11:34 am Permalink

    My daughter still quotes her fourth-grade teacher, who advised: “Mistakes are natural, normal and necessary.”

    Well done, Howard, as always.

  3. Howard
    Anne
    August 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm Permalink

    Your life wisdom is so inspiring. THis justly applies to all human behavior. So true that how a person responds to life’s events-life’s ups and downs is a choice. Instead of a knee jerk reaction and blaming and not learning from your mistakes, this is the sign of a successful person in life.

    Wonderful insight and so well written.