There’s a certain terror that strikes when you make a mistake at work and can’t fix it fast enough.
Take this nursing student, whose story was part of an article on the Cosmopolitan UK website:
“I worked on a care of the elderly ward. I tried to manage time better by filling a sink and putting all the patients’ false teeth in together to clean. I did a fabulous job cleaning them—until I had to give them back to their right owners.”
And this massive, mailed misstep, related by Buzzfeed:
“I work for a professional association that puts on live programs, one of which was supposed to be at the ski area ‘Snowmass.’ Proofing for the flyers that were sent out fell through the cracks, and 40,000 people received flyers inviting them to ‘Snow Ass.’ ”
I’ve had my moments, too. When I was a young print journalist, I misinterpreted a city council spending decision and it unfortunately was the front-page story of the community paper I worked for, complete with a factually incorrect headline above the fold.
When mistakes happen, it is easy to assume that our careers are wrecked. When I made that reporting mistake, I was sure I’d get fired. Luckily, my editor had compassion for us “newbies.” My mistake turned in a teachable moment, with the mayor helping me to understand the municipal contract process.
And lucky me for other reasons.
1. Mistakes help us pay better attention.
New research shows that intentionally making mistakes and correcting them can enhance learning. In experiments, students were asked to deliberately make mistakes on a test. The exercise enhanced their ability to learn new information. This is called the “derring effect.” You can bet that making my reporting mistake pushed me to be more careful about double checking facts and asking for clarifications.
2. Mistakes teach us things.
It’s hard to dispute that an error in judgment forces us to consider what led us astray. But frequently, that also means getting more creative in the future when finding solutions to problems. We simply know more about what can go wrong, and we look for ways to reduce risk and get results.
3. Mistakes help us grow our self-compassion.
Getting past the shock of screwing up and realizing that we aren’t going to dissolve and disappear can show us that we can survive the experience. Often, we see that others are forgiving and even eager to help us recover from a mistake. This can soften our fear and self-blame.
Which brings me to the question you are likely to get in your next job interview:
“When was a time that you made a mistake or had a project fail?”
You might freeze.
But I want you to consider that this question could actually be Gold.
Remember: It’s not the mistakes we make that define us; it’s how we deal with them. Resilience is one of the most important traits you can demonstrate to a prospective employer.
So, here’s what I urge you to do the next time you get a question about mistakes or failures:
1. Say, “That’s a great question.” Then tell about the situation.
2. Explain what happened; how you handled the situation; how you resolved it; or what decisions you had to make to cope with or address the outcome.
3. Explain what you learned from the situation and how it has informed your processes or progress since.
Here are some more great tips from my industry colleague, Hannah Morgan.
While you are telling the story, you probably will feel a bit vulnerable. But consider this: Your interviewers likely will be thinking about their own missteps and remembering how they felt while committing them. They probably will be rooting for you!
After you are finished telling the story, you hopefully will feel a little triumphant.
So, you made a mistake.
You felt bad for a while. But you didn’t let it stop you. You were able to recover from a moment that could have completely destroyed your confidence.
And better than that, you benefited your employer with something you might not have learned if you had not screwed up.
This is what will make you a great team member. This is what will make you a great leader.
This is the value of mistakes.
And try, if you can (if it’s appropriate) to develop a sense of humor about your human foibles. The author of the ski-event flyer mentioned above probably wanted to call in sick for the next month. But (while hopefully having learned not to rush their processes), he and his colleagues eventually managed to laugh about their typo. The anecdote author related: “Now, any time someone messes up, we all say, ‘At least it isn’t Snow Ass.’ “