Do You Make Mistakes? Great!

Perhaps you have had experiences like the following:

  • You convinced company colleagues to pursue a project with a high profile client; you led the effort of responding to a request for proposal. Your team came in second. Mistake?
  • You finally got up the courage to present a paper at a national conference, prepared an abstract that was accepted, worked hard on the written paper, and practiced the presentation. However, the audience seemed largely disinterested. Mistake?
  • Several years ago you left your employer, became an entrepreneur, and started your own independent consultant business. You enjoyed some early success, but ultimately failed. Mistake?
  • Wanting to contribute to your community, you ran for a seat on the City Council, conducted an energetic campaign, spent a lot of your money, and lost. Mistake?
  • Your goal was to become the manager of one of your firm’s offices. You worked hard to earn that position. Not only were you not selected, but you learned that you were not even considered. Mistake?

If the above situations reflect your attitude and approach to and experience with professional and personal life, my guess is that those kinds of mistakes helped you learn -- you acquired new knowledge, skills, and attitudes -- which you subsequently used for big wins. Those who achieve success and significance understand that risk taking is part of the process. They know that mistakes, big and small, ultimately lead to big wins.

Engineers, in accordance with their ethics codes, hold paramount public safety, health, and welfare. Therefore, we do all we can to avoid making mistakes in our professional work, that is, in our planning, designing, constructing, and operating. We are well aware of the standard of care expectation. I understand, support, and do my best to practice this aversion to mistakes. However, I am concerned when that aversion seeps excessively into many aspects of our lives where the consequences of failure tend to be relatively small and personal.

To live fully, we need to take chances and get out of our comfort zone. As someone said, “No guts, no glory.” Or as more eloquently stated by Theodore Roosevelt, 26th U.S. President: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

I once worked with an engineer who seemed to never, or almost never, make mistakes. He achieved this status by doing essentially the same things over-and-over, year-after-year. He seemed to live, at minimum, in that “gray twilight.”

Consider the “no guts, no glory” idea further by contemplating the following thoughts:

  • “The only person who never makes mistakes is the person who never does anything.”  (Denis Waitley, productivity consultant and author)
  • “While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, another is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.” (Henry C. Link, psychologist)
  • “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” (George Bernard Shaw, author and playwright)
  • “No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes.” (William E. Gladstone, British Prime Minister)
  • “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” (Elbert Hubbard, writer and editor)
  • “It’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.” (Richard G. Weingardt, engineer and author)

In the short run, not taking risks in many facets of our lives, and thus avoiding mistakes, is comforting. However, that mode of living may gradually close many doors, deny us career security, and prevent us from realizing our potential. In other words, living our lives with the highest priority being not to make mistakes seems like a mistake, a big mistake.

While we may take a risk, fail or lose, and regret it, not taking risks may be more costly when viewed in the context of our entire personal and professional being. According to journalist and author Sydney J. Harris, “Regret for things we did can be tempered by time. Regret for things we did not do is inconsolable.”

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