Jun 232011

Don’t Fear Making Mistakes

Don’t fear making mistakes; fear not making enough of them. Let’s consider two scenarios: 1.) The person who hardly ever makes mistakes; 2.) The person who makes A LOT of mistakes, but is careful to learn from them each time. Who do you think will accomplish more in their chosen endeavor (and in life in general)?

In my experience, chances are very high that the person who is willing to make mistakes, but also very careful to learn from each one, is likely to accomplish significantly more than the person who is not willing to make mistakes. Let’s look at a simple scenario to understand why this is so.

Let’s say you are an entrepreneur and you are launching a new product. As a good entrepreneur, you have developed the product because you saw an unmet need in the market and validated your perception by talking to potential buyers and even receiving substantial orders in advance of the release. In fact, the pre-launch orders were so substantial that you decide, for the time-being at least, not to seek other channels of distribution or pursue other potential customers for your new product. You feel comfortable with the $2,000,000 million in first year sales due to pre-launch orders and don’t want to risk going after other potential markets/customers that are not a “sure thing”. In other words, you’d prefer not to make a mistake and decide you are satisfied with the results of your initial foray.

Across town is another entrepreneur, a competitor of yours, in fact, who has developed a similar product. It only does about 80% of what your product does, but that competitor is confident that it is the “80% that matters” and that it will not limit the ultimate success of the product. Because the product does not have all the bells and whistles that yours does, your competitor only achieves $500,000 of pre-launch sales. Not satisfied with this, your competitor aggressively begins to explore alternative markets, uses, and distribution channels for the product. At first she finds little success, spending several months with very little to show for her incessant efforts. In the fourth month post-launch the competitor hits “pay-dirt” and strikes a relationship with a then little-known (in America, at least) Asian distributor of similar products. The relationship yields first year sales of $4.25 million, with strong profit margins, despite the distribution cost, as it turns out the Japanese demand is through the roof, permitting higher prices. The exchange rate also helps your competitor out.

So, in the end, your competitor achieves more than double your first year sales on a similar, competing product. What happened here? First, your competitor was not content with the pre-launch sales achieved, whereas you were. Second, for a wide variety of reasons, potentially including having a strong enough level of self-confidence to not be daunted by the prospect of encountering a bunch of “failure” before success, your competitor pressed on in looking for alternative markets and sales channels. Finally, your competitor viewed every “mistake” as an opportunity to learn and a step in the direction of their ultimate goal of maximizing sales and profitability of the newly launched product.

This situation repeats itself endlessly in the business world and in all other endeavors. Certain “players” become content with their achievements very quickly, long before achieving their ultimate potential. They become comfortable. They become afraid to make mistakes. Their ego is not strong enough to take any hits. They like their position as it is and they like the recognition they are receiving, so they don’t want to risk making mistakes and damaging their self-perception and the positive opinion others may have of them.

On the other hand, there are players who experiment endlessly, enjoying their successes, learning from their “failures,” but never completely content that they have achieved all that they can. They see mistakes and “failures” as opportunities to learn, not as a hit to their sense of self-worth. They learn to make as many mistakes as possible, as quickly as possible, so they can achieve their goals more rapidly and not stagnate. They understand the importance of making incremental progress and make smaller mistakes where possible — mistakes that will not “kill the company”. They’re not indiscriminate risk-takers betting the farm at every chance they get. Rather, they take a constant series of incremental risks, in order to learn, gaining whatever insights they can from each mistake, and then moving on. They do not dwell on mistakes.

Do you fear making mistakes, or do you see them as an opportunity to advance toward your ultimate objective(s)?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin

  • It is scary to make mistakes, but the older I get, the more I realize the importance of all the mistakes I made when I was young. Having made lots of mistakes as a teenager and young adult has prepared me for being a better parent to the teenagers living in my house. I’ve also been able to tell the kids that even if you fail at first, you need to keep trying in order to learn new things. Now I am applying it to my business. Great advice, great post, Paul

  • Sami

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I find myself too tightly wrapped about the possible mistakes I will make in my writing that the once growing dream of producing a funny mom novelty cookbook quickly diminished. I found myself stuck in the editing and re-editing process that I could never move forward. Now I write a funny cooking blog for moms transforming the pages of my then “cookbook” into easy blog posts that once published there’s no editing left. Although, I have secretly edited a few even after I hit publish. Your article has made me rethink about the joy of why I started writing. It was fun because in the beginning it was easy and care-free. My “for fun” project was for me. I’m certain that I can make a few mistakes and still enjoy myself in the process. Thank you for this realization!

  • Sami, thanks for your comment and for sharing your personal experience. I think we probably all have some perfectionist in us. Moreover, many people find it difficult to make mistakes, as they think it reflects badly (and permanently) on them. In reality though, mistakes can be looked at as badges of honor, as long as we learn from them! I appreciate that you brought up the joy of why you started writing, as that type of joy and passion can help us overcome all kinds of obstacles, including the fear of failing and “pushing the publish button” on our businesses and our lives. Paul

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