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3 Lessons from Making Mistakes at Work

3 Lessons from Making Mistakes at WorkWe regularly hear that making mistakes is key to learning, innovating and succeeding. But how often do you hear people actually discussing the details of their mistakes?

That’s what inspired Jessica Bacal to interview women about their biggest blunders. As she writes in Mistakes I Made At Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong, “… [O]ver the years, I’d seen too many women waxing rhapsodic about the ‘value of learning from mistakes,’ without actually describing any, to find that platitude helpful.”

In the book, women from a variety of fields, including medical, arts and finance, share in their own words the vital lessons they’ve learned from their errors — because, as Bacal says, “There’s power in talking about our mistakes and failures.”

Below are three lessons from Mistakes I Made At Work.

Don’t confuse your mistake with who you are.

“You and your bad decision are two separate things,” according to Danielle Ofri, M.D, an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital and an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine.

In her second year of residency, Ofri made the mistake of not following a standard protocol for patients with diabetic ketoacidosis — administering an injection of long-acting insulin before turning off the IV. Patients who don’t receive this injection revert back into diabetic ketoacidosis. And that’s exactly what happened to Ofri’s patient. Thankfully, the man was okay.

But she felt deep shame about her mistake, replaying it in her head. “It took weeks to pick myself up off the floor, and there was no one to talk to about it,” she writes.

Ofri makes a powerful distinction between guilt and shame:

“Guilt relates to an act you did, and you can remedy that act to resolve the guilt. But shame is internal; it’s the realization that you’re not who you thought you were. Guilt makes you want to fix things, but shame makes you want to run and hide. And shame was what I had felt as I stood there in the ER being reprimanded.”

She’s learned that: “Whatever job you’re in, whether you make a mistake as a doctor or a teacher or an ad exec, the error is in your action, not in yourself.”

This lesson also informs how she interacts with colleagues and students. For instance, if they’ve made a mistake, she pulls them aside to talk about it in private.

Reframe negative feedback.

In 1987, author Judith Warner got her first job out of college doing clerical work at the New York Times. The position was part of a writing program that also offered individuals the opportunity to report and write stories during their free time. If the Times liked your work, you’d score a short stint as a reporter.

Warner was ecstatic to get the job. But she felt deflated after hearing what the head of the program had to say: She told Warner that she was a much weaker candidate than the others, and all the editors agreed she’d need to work twice as hard in order to succeed.

“…I interpreted it as an insult rather than a challenge, and as a result, I came in and felt as if they didn’t really want or like me.”

That interpretation — along with Warner’s self-doubt and uncertainty about what she wanted to be — led to her not making the most of her time. For instance, she declined a position as a temporary clerk in the Boston bureau.

According to Warner, “Back in the first job at the Times, it would have been great if I could have said, ‘Even though the head of the clerical workers is telling me I’m ‘less than,’ this is an amazing opportunity and I’m going to see every day as a learning experience.’… If you can start to develop it early, it’s a great attitude for getting through life.”

It’s tough to reframe negative feedback or criticism — especially since our brains tend toward negative thinking anyway — but doing so can help you move forward and take advantage of great opportunities.

Don’t get caught up in “seeming over being.”

Rachel Simmons went to college at Vassar, served as an Urban Fellow in the mayor’s office in New York, worked on a pivotal Senate campaign, was accepted to Yale law school and became a Rhodes Scholar. The Daily News wrote a story about her acceptance in a piece called “Finally, a Genius in City Hall.”

She soaked up the attention and status. But, when she got to Oxford, it just didn’t feel right and she had a realization: She didn’t really want to study at Oxford; she wanted the recognition of being a Rhodes Scholar.

Her self-esteem had been built on accomplishing and winning awards, and, along the way, she lost who she was and what she really wanted to do. As she started exploring her interests and passions, she realized Oxford was a mistake. So she left. Her family was disappointed. Even a high-ranking official at Vassar told Simmons she’d embarrassed the school.

Simmons had an idea to write a children’s book and contacted a friend, whose mother was an editor. The editor didn’t think that was the right idea. But she did think there was another, more important book. Simmons withdrew from Yale (her parents were furious) and started working on the book while taking on menial jobs for extra money.

That book was the bestseller Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. A week after it was published, Simmons went on Oprah. The book also was a New York Times bestseller.

Simmons learned that “when you privilege how you appear to others over how you are to yourself — when you choose seeming over being — you drift away from the strongest parts of who you are.”

Today, she’s a bestselling author, leadership consultant, curriculum writer and workshop teacher. And she loves what she does.

Simmons believes there’s nothing more powerful in providing us with wisdom and strength than making an epic mistake. “It’s like when babies touch something hot and scream in pain. They’ll never touch it again. And neither will you.”

Success — however you define it — isn’t built on avoiding blunders. It’s not built on living a straight path, without any detours or barriers. Instead, it’s built on extracting the lessons from our biggest mistakes.

3 Lessons from Making Mistakes at Work

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). 3 Lessons from Making Mistakes at Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 14 Apr 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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