Making big mistakes

October 13, 2011

I still remember that deadly class period in Junior High School — social dance class.  After reminding us to stand up tall, lead firmly, look your partner right in the eye, smile, start with the right foot, listen to the music, be aware of other couples on the dance floor, point your feet straight forward, hope that your teeth were brushed and that your breath is okay, and more pointers that I’ve surely forgotten, she gave us one last piece of deadly advice:

 “If you take little steps, you’ll make only little mistakes”.

That was horrible advice for the dance floor and for life, for me in Junior High, and for every later period of my life.  Even as I first heard those words, I knew they were a motto for the life I didn’t want to live.

I remembered that advice when the fledgling internet provider Earthlink came out with their statement of  “Core values and beliefs”.  They actually encouraged their employees to make mistakes.  But, Earthlink explained, “We see a huge difference between ‘good mistakes’ (best effort, bad result) and ‘bad mistakes’ (sloppiness or lack of effort)”.

Indeed, I’ve learned little from the things I did right, and have found so many lessons in the creative big mistakes that helped me find my way.  We must be prepared to lose sometimes, win often.  Rather than hide from our mistake, the winning strategy is to acknowledge, embrace, and learn from them.

The president of a good size company brought me in as a consultant.  Even though I worked with many of his staff, I remained “his man”, and when he was booted out, I went also.  He alone was responsible for my task assignments, for reviewing my work, and for briefing me on new challenges.  With my next large client, I insisted that they form a committee to review and guide my work.  This insulated me from much of the company politics, while at the same time offering insight about what was really going on.  A whole team of people were invested in my agenda, and understood that they really were stakeholders.

When hiring new staff, one of my most important questions has always been, “Can you tell me about an interesting mistake that you made in your last job, and what you learned from it.”  Those applicants who were totally flummoxed, or who just offered a weak story (perhaps, “I underestimated the cost of our last project”) didn’t pass my test.  But those who could honestly report an interesting and significant mistake, such as my tale above, rose to the top of my list.  I could count on them to be self-aware, honest, articulate, and coachable.

This story ends in a different gymnasium,  also in a dance class.  But this time I was at the Bates Dance Festival, where I was the resident photographer. The teacher was Associate Professor of Dance Carol Dilley.  After giving her students some hints on technique and interpretation, and urging them to dance with spirit and aliveness, she offered one final piece of advice:

“If you’re going to make mistakes, make big ones!”

Thank you, Carol Dilley.

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