“Tolerating” Failure

“Mistakes are the portal of discovery.” ~James Joyce

I was on the interwebs this weekend, trolling through different news sites, reading articles and the like, when I came upon this article.  It’s about a tattoo artist named Chris Baker who covers up gang and human-trafficking tattoos for free.  Chris, who is also a youth pastor, believes everyone deserves a second chance and that by offering a way to physically make a break from their past, these people can move on and correct the mistakes of their youth.

I share this because a) it’s an amazing cause* with the potential to change lives, and b) the story got me thinking about my own reactions to mistakes.  I’m talking specifically about my reaction to the mistakes made by others.  (To be clear – YES.   I MAKE MISTAKES.  I AM FULLY AWARE OF MY FAILINGS.  THANK YOU.  But we’re talking about my reaction, not my mistakes.  Besides, it’s my blog.  So there.)

oopsANYHOO, a little background….When I was in grad school, 3 semesters into an MBA that I absolutely hated, I went to the career center to talk to someone about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  If you’ve never been to a career counselor, you should know that while ultimately you may find it useful, the level of self-reflection, assessment, and analysis is fairly…what’s the word?…excruciating.   One of the exercises requires you to look back at every single job you’ve ever had and identify the reason why you left.  Granted, at that time there was a lot more movie theater retail/mom & pop businesses in there than there is now, but the process was very eye opening.  A big reason I moved on from jobs was because I couldn’t stand it when people did things in what I perceived to be the “wrong” way.  And that career counselor called me on it (dammit).  She said that unless I figured out how to view the perceived failures of others in a different way, I would never be able to stay at a job for longer than 1 year.

This was a pretty big deal.  After all, I wasn’t the one making mistakes – why should I change?  [Office Space moment: “Why should I change?  He’s the one that sucks.”] This kind person who probably had to deal with neurotic grad students all day pointed out the obvious fact I can only control my actions, not the actions of others (again…dammit).  And that really got me thinking – why am I so unwilling to accept the mistakes of others?

Well, long story short (too late), it turns out that I have a tendency to view forgiveness and moving on as “tolerating” failure.  I think that it somehow reflects poorly on me that someone made a mistake and I didn’t make a big deal about it. I expect people to not make mistakes that seem so easily avoidable (in hindsight) and somehow I’m disappointed when they do.  It’s even more pronounced when the mistake is made by a leader or a respected peer.  “Gee,” I think. “ Shouldn’t you have known better?”

The clever ones among you probably noticed the switch to present tense there – yes, I still struggle with making sure I view mistakes as opportunities to learn.  Every day, I purposefully think about the way I react, learning from my past mistakes and ensuring that I give people the freedom to do the same.  For those of you who struggle with the same challenge, I have a few tips:

  • Reframe, rephrase, reflect: Rather than thinking of someone’s mistake as a failure, I find it helpful to think of it as an opportunity to learn.  The learning opportunity isn’t just for the person who made the mistake; the whole team should take a moment to reflect on what role they played (if any) and how we can all learn from the process moving forward.
  • Don’t judge – even jokingly: Okay, I suck at this one.  I speak fluent sarcasm and it’s really hard for me to pass up a good joke.  I am also aware that it sends the wrong message.  Doesn’t mean I’m able to stop myself all the time, but I know I do it. And knowing is half the battle. (Go, Joe!)  Set the example with the team and assume positive intent – most people don’t make mistakes on purpose.  Besides, it takes a lot of guts to own up to a mistake, just as it’s embarrassing to be caught in a mistake.  Let the mistake-maker keep his/her dignity and address the issue.
  • Transparency is your friend: I try to be very open when I make a mistake – call it out, own it, and explain what I’m going to do to fix it.  In my mind, if we can remove the stigma of admitting to mistakes, we will gain more insight into what’s really going on in our business.  Does this mean immunity?  No.  Not all mistakes can be overlooked, and we still need to hold people accountable; however, encouraging transparency by practicing it can still help bring issues to light and move the business forward.

I suspect many of you may recognize yourself in what I’ve written here.  I share this with you because I think it’s important to build a culture where mistakes are embraced as opportunity, and where people can openly talk about what they need to do to be better without worrying that it somehow brands them for life.

*Note: If you’re interested in learning more about Chris Baker’s efforts with INK 180, you can read more about it here.

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