The Mistake Bank: How to Succeed By Forgiving Your Mistakes and Embracing Your Failures - Paperback: $9.97
"It's back to work tomorrow to see what we can improve," Brady said after the game as his team headed into a bye week. "We can always improve."
It was a sentiment shared by left tackle Nate Solder.
"We have to continue to improve because we didn't do everything the way we wanted to," he said post-victory.
Never being satisfied is the mark of a good team. It's one thing to be unhappy when you lose, as Manning was. It's entirely different when you win, and win handily. It's a special sort of madness which makes great players great and carries teams to championships.
I was up for promotion at Harvard Business School. Like most universities, we have a “publish or perish” promotion process. If you don’t publish compelling research, and plenty of it, you perish. Promotion odds at my school are low: three out of four new professors eventually get fired. So, I was facing the same odds of failure as a typical entrepreneur.
I thought I was in good shape. I was studying internet companies, and a publisher had paid me a big advance for a book about this hot new phenomenon. But the senior professors who reviewed a draft of my book and my other work saw things differently. They said my research seemed like it was done in a hurry; it had a lot of intellectual loose ends. That was ironic, because my book was titled Speed Trap. The book analyzed mistakes that many internet companies made by growing too fast.
My boss told me that I wasn’t being fired — at least not immediately. Instead, the School would put me on probation and give me two more years to try to improve my research. But he added, “There are no guarantees that this will work. You should think about whether you are cut out for this job, and you should seriously consider leaving academia now. You’ve got plenty of good opportunities in the real world.”
I was shell-shocked. You may be familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and gradual, grudging acceptance. We experience these stages when we confront impending death or some other extreme, awful fate. The risk of getting fired after spending seven years trying to reach my goal seemed truly terrible. So, I passed through the five stages of grief. I lingered at anger.
But...I knew that I still loved my work. I resolved to not run from my failure this time. I would try to learn from my setback, even though that would expose me to the risk of future failure. My book was finished but not yet printed. I told my publisher to cancel my contract. I gave them their money back, and I kissed goodbye to a year’s worth of work. I put my head down and cranked out better research. I lived on edge for two years, but I got promoted. The pain was temporary, but worth it.
If you want to fail better, accepting risk is just half the battle. The other half is learning from our mistakes. As Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
What’s your rating? [note: Uber drivers are rated by passengers on a scale up to 5. Drivers with lower ratings get fewer assignments.]
Mine is 4.8. I think I lost some points when one woman felt I had not listened when she suggested I could take Olympic or Wilshire Boulevard to her destination, rather than get on the freeway. I didn’t realize her “suggestion” was actually her preference.
When you start your own business, you’re the CEO, but you’re not the Chief Executive Officer, because there’s nobody there to execute for you. You’re the Chief Everything Officer. Immediately, you have to start doing these things you’ve never done before, and it ranges from, for us, how do you design a label? How do you make a sales call on a bar? How do you negotiate a real estate lease. I had never done any of that. And the list goes on and on, all these practical nuts and bolts of the business that, if you do them really badly, they can kill your company.
Here’s a literal example. In the very beginning, a truckload of beer arrived that I had to put away into the little warehouse we had. Well, I had never driven a forklift before. I had driven tractors and gators and things like that. But a forklift, I learned, steers from the back, which is a little different if you’ve never done it before. And you have this pallet of beer in front of you, so you can’t really see through the front.
So I get the beer off the loading dock and start driving it to the brick warehouse, where the door into the building is only about six inches wider than the pallet. So, I come rolling toward the door and — bang — the forklift hits the side of the door, takes out two courses of brick. The beer gets knocked off and half of it breaks. It took me an hour to sweep up. I never bothered to fix that door, though. I figured it I fixed it, I would just hit it again.
You can't possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It's a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we've been building them for 100 years, it's very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works - it's even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential. The same is true of airplanes.
Saundra C. Winokur, 74, acknowledges that she lacked a formal plan when she founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Tex., in 1997. “I just threw myself into it and learned on the job, though I probably would have not made as many mistakes as I did had I written a business plan,” Ms. Winokur said. If she had written a business plan, however, she might have become discouraged. “There were no olive orchards at the time in Texas,” she said. “It was thought that it couldn’t be done.”
Ms. Winokur, a native Texan who worked as an elementary-school teacher and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology, traveled extensively to research olive production. She noticed that renowned olive-producing regions — southern Spain, southern Italy and Egypt — “looked a lot like Texas.” In 1997, she bought 276 acres of sandy land, which she describes as “oceanfront property without the ocean.”
She planted 450 trees, but lost about half in the first winter because she had yet to master irrigation. Despite that setback, her business has flourished. In addition to producing olive oil, she owns a nursery and a restaurant. Ms. Winokur has had considerable help along the way. Experienced farmers in the area served as mentors. One neighbor briefed her on the history of her land, which had long been fallow when she bought it.
She later received a $98,000 Agriculture Department Value-Added Producer Grant, which helps farmers create derivative products from crops. Ms. Winokur used the money to market her olive-leaf jelly and hire a chef. The grant “gave me that kick-start I needed to move the business to the next level,” she said.
When she started her orchard, Ms. Winokur could hoist 80-pound bags on her own, but she now must rely on employees to handle strenuous chores. She estimates that it took her 13 years to recruit a “first rate” team and advises new farmers to pay well but hire carefully: “Don’t hire because you’re desperate, the first person who comes through the door. Really take your time.”
In pursuit of big dreams, entrepreneurs miss nights out with friends, days on the beach, and even moments with family.
These sacrifices can create strong emotional ties between founders and their visions, making it difficult to let go. The hard truth is that emotional investment in a business is a sunk cost. It cannot be recovered, and using its existence to justify future investments of time is economically irrational. But try telling that to a passionate founder.
I fell victim to that fallacy soon after SmartRaise was started. The data showed that some of my assumptions had been wrong, and the economics of the business simply would not work. Despite my data-driven DNA, however, I hung on for dear life. After all that work, giving up couldn’t possibly be the best move, could it?
I spent weeks waiting for the data to turn in my favor, programming new features and trying out new marketing tactics. I “pivoted” a few times, but these weren’t true pivots, just small tweaks to the already disproved business model. My emotional immaturity trumped my economic logic, dooming SmartRaise to a slower, more painful death than it deserved.
Today, failure comes much more naturally because I concentrate my emotions on the bigger picture. Failures are educational and contribute to a (far away) life goal of becoming a great entrepreneur. This makes it a bit easier to rip off the Band-Aid when necessary.
If you are spending countless hours on a new project, friends and family will naturally ask you about it. After that, every time you see them they will want an update on how it is going. And who can blame them? Entrepreneurship can be exciting.
This pattern, however, can put you in an uncomfortable spot if you end up walking away from an idea. When I shut down SmartRaise, I dreaded seeing all those inquisitive friends — how would I explain that the site was no more?
What I quickly learned, though, was that no one cared nearly as much as I did. I came to realize that all those people asking for updates were not interested in how SmartRaise was doing — they were interested in how I was doing. I was touched, and they were immediately supportive of my new direction.
Learning from failed experiences has been of particular interest as organizations seek to adapt and avoid repeating prior failures (Ingram & Baum, 1997, Kim & Miner, 2007, Madsen & Desai, 2010). Relative to successful experiences, failures have been seen as more effective triggers of individuals’ learning efforts, because they reveal a gap in ability that stimulates efforts to “tweak” existing practices, search for new capabilities, and develop innovative solutions (Sitkin, 1992, March & Simon, 1993, Baum & Dahlin, 2007, Hora & Klassen, 2013). Following traditional theories of individual learning (e.g., Kolb, 1984), failure can be seen as a form of unexpected event (i.e., where actual outcomes differ from expected outcomes; Allwood, 1984) that creates a sense of discomfort that triggers individuals to make sense of it, test hypotheses, and stimulate growth (Louis & Sutton, 1991, Ellis, Mendel, & Nir, 2006). At the same time, by revealing that an existing strategy is unsuccessful, failures encourage broader search for new strategies (i.e., exploration), resulting in enhanced long-term innovation (March, 1991, Audia & Goncalo, 2007). Indeed, after a successful experience, it is more difficult to detect deviations from a plan (Ellis, Mendel, & Nir, 2006), as the successful outcome confirms the validity of a prior routine (Weick, 1984, Sitkin, 1992) and builds confidence (and complacency) regarding its utility for future performance (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999).
Hypothesis 2: The learning effects of failure are driven by internal attribution of the failed experience. Specifically, internal attribution moderates the effect of failure on learning, such that the effect of failure on learning is more positive when the failure is attributed more internally.
Hypothesis 3: Ambiguity of responsibility decreases internal attribution and learning from failure
How well does a prescription drug work? It can be hard for even doctors to know. Pharmaceutical companies frequently withhold the results of negative or inconclusive trials. Without a full accounting, a physician who wants to counsel a patient about whether a drug works better than a sugar pill is frequently at a loss. Drug companies share only airbrushed versions of data on safety and usefulness.
As a research chemist at an IBM laboratory, Jeannette M. Garcia spends her days mixing and heating chemicals in pursuit of stronger and more easily recyclable plastics. Recently she followed a simple formula that required mixing three components in a beaker. Somehow she missed a step, leaving out a chemical. She returned to find her beaker filled with a hard white plastic that had even frozen the stirrer.
Dr. Garcia tried grinding the mystery material, to no avail. Then she took a hammer to the beaker to free it.
That laboratory error has led to the discovery of a new family of materials that are unusually strong and light, exhibit “self-healing” properties and can be easily reformed to make products recyclable.
The materials — two new types of synthetic polymers — could have applications for transportation. Because of their recyclability, they also could have an impact on consumer products, as well as on the industrial packaging for microelectronics components.
The findings were reported on Thursday in the journal Science by a research team at IBM’s Almaden Research Laboratory in San Jose, Calif.
To promote inclusion and reap its rewards, leaders should embrace a selfless leadership style. Here are some concrete ways to get started based on both our current research and our ongoing study of leadership development practices at one company, Rockwell Automation:
Share your mistakes as teachable moments. When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others; by admitting to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too. We also tend to connect with people who share their imperfections and foibles—they appear more “human,” more like us. Particularly in diverse workgroups, displays of humility may help to remind group members of their common humanity and shared objectives....
Early on, I thought I could remember everything, so I never used to write down anything. When I was around 28, and running a big computer center, my manager would give me 10 things to do, and I would get nine done. But he always seemed to know which one I didn’t do. He told me: “Shibu, please get it right. Write it down.” That changed my life. Now I’m very disciplined. I write it down, and I take care of each item and follow through.
I trained as a statistician and first joined Bell Labs in the network performance group. A year or two after I started, it was time for my first big presentation at AT&T Headquarters. I completed my prep well in advance and rehearsed carefully. Then I was off to the big meeting....
It could not have gone worse. The only impressions I left were bad ones. Young hothead that I was, I blamed everyone but myself, including the audience: “The average manager up here can’t even understand a pie chart!”
An established veteran of many such presentations looked me square in the eye and said, “Of course not, Tom. It’s your job to make it so they don’t have to.”
That was my first lesson in data presentation. As a data presenter, you face a tall order in getting others to comprehend and believe data. You have to think through your audience’s background and present data in ways that advance their understanding. The best way to do so is to make your plots and the accompanying explanations easy to understand.
I...quickly learned that you have to be honest, transparent and fair. We have 10 development centers in India, and I travel to visit them. Somebody once asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to, but I invented some answer. About three weeks later, I went to another center, and somebody asked the same question, and I invented some answer again. They immediately said, “Well, you were at another center and you said something else.” I promised myself then that if I don’t know, I will say: “I don’t know the answer. I’ll find out and let you know.”
I spent six years in a job prior to Intuit, doing a range of jobs in marketing. I started the Internet division during the dot-com boom. I convinced the board to give us $40 million to sign two e-commerce deals, telling them that we could sell more things online than our sales force could sell. I told them we wouldn’t even need a sales force. After $40 million, we sold just 15 units.
So when I went to meet with the board, I figured that I was going to get fired. I called my parents, and my dad said: “Just go in and say: ‘Here’s what I thought. Here’s what happened. Here’s where I was wrong, and here’s what I would do differently.’ ”
I did that, and when I was finished, one board member started clapping and said: “You know what? You are more valuable to us now for three reasons. The first reason is that you won’t make that mistake again, so we want you to go and make a bunch of new mistakes. The second is that your engineers built a killer product, and now our salespeople have something they can put in their sales bag. And the third is the competition is all trying to convince the street that we’re old school and they’re going to do everything online. You just proved that that’s not likely, so we’re smarter as a result.”
High demand for his database made him realize that he had found a market himself. In 1967, Mr. McGovern conceived of an industry newspaper he intended to call Computer World News. With a computer conference in Boston looming, he and others put together an eight-page prototype in less than two weeks. Then a last-minute problem arose: A typesetter found that in using a type size appropriate for a publication title, he could fit only “Computer” and “World” in the space allowed on the page, and without a space between. And so Computerworld came to life.
Like so many young entrepreneurs, my brother and I made plenty of mistakes. But I can say with a high degree of certainty, we would not have become as successful as we did had we not made those mistakes and learned from them.
For instance, my brother and I asked our great aunt for a gift of $50,000 to start our venture. She ended up doing us a favor -- she turned us down. Instead, she gave us a loan for $5,000. Had she given us $50,000, we would have failed in a big way. We would have hired a staff to implement a business plan that we later learned was flawed. Without much capital at the beginning, we were forced to start small and, fortunately, to fail small.
My brother and I struggled for eight years before we became successful. We learned a tremendous amount in those years, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
I had my first child when I was 30, and it was very important for me to have balance. So my idea of balance was that I would go to work during the day, come home, spend time with my child, and then after everybody went to sleep, I would do work. So it was very common for people to get emails from me at 2 or 3 in the morning.
It was just my way of managing my life, but what I didn’t realize is that it freaked everybody out. Somebody said, “Do you really expect us to get back to you at 3:30 in the morning?” I said: “No, I assume that you’re sleeping. I don’t have that expectation at all.” But the feedback I got was that it was disturbing the people that I was managing.
I ended up having a meeting with my team. I’m pretty direct and big on candor, and I had to explain to them that we all need to find our balance. I expect a lot out of you, and you expect a lot out of me. This is just my way of doing my job, and I’m not going to prescribe how you do your job. I don’t expect you to be up all night. After we had a direct conversation about it, everybody was cool with it. So one of my early lessons was really trying to be attuned to things and making sure that you have an open dialogue so things don’t become issues.