Learn from your mistakes at work

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life. This time, how do you handle mistakes?


Learn from your mistakes at work

The project

Nobody likes to focus on their failures. We’re even less likely to talk about them – who’d want to remind a boss or job interviewer about the times they screwed up? Yet psychologists agree you can learn and grow more from mistakes than successes, as long as you react to them in the right way.

The aim

There are hidden hazards to continuous success at work. First, it’s hard to tell why things are going well – are you an office star because you say yes to every demand, or despite that? Second, there’s the risk of overconfidence – your habit of leaving things to the last minute hasn’t caused a crisis yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Third, success can make you overcautious. If things are fine, why risk switching jobs? Let yourself risk failure and you’ll achieve more.

The theory

There are different kinds of mistakes, says work expert Scott Berkun. Some are tiny and easily fixed – if your phone always dies at work, take a charger. Others are huge and unavoidable – like choosing the wrong job. So focus on the middle category: mistakes you can learn from, that require effort to change. Are you always late for work? Do you take on too much?

The first step is to admit, if only to yourself, your mistake. Then choose someone (a friend outside work or caring boss) to help design a solution and hold you accountable – maybe decide to always delay saying yes to requests. Finally, move on. Reflect on your error, then let it go. You’ve learned and grown only because you first made a mistake.

Try it out

  • Make a deliberate mistake. Choose some ‘safe’ task to do badly – skip an unimportant, optional meeting, say. What’s the real impact of failing? It might be much less than you feared, giving you confidence to embrace the risk of failure in the future.
  • Allow others their failures. If you manage others at work, it’s crucial to foster a culture in the workplace in which they won’t be blamed for taking bold risks that go wrong. If you can, discuss with them any times when you tried and failed.
  • Go failure-spotting. Need encouragement to embrace your mistakes? Look at everything around you that was invented because someone made a mistake. Post-its, penicillin, plastics, pacemakers and microwave ovens all came into being because someone, somewhere, messed up.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock

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