When You Don’t Learn From Your Mistakes

mistakes

I love good stories.

They help to make the abstract stuff of life concrete. Here is a FANTASTIC story about the importance of learning from your mistakes. It comes from the book “Street Smarts” and was reprinted in Inc magazine. I just finished the book and I would highly recommend it.  The writing flows easily. It is clear, and obviously drawn from lots of experience. I am disappointed that he doesn’t have more books available.

Anyway, the author (Norm Brodsky) says that when there is a mistake in your organization you need to do two things, and both are very important.  First, stop the bleeding.  Second, determine the cause of the problem so it doesn’t happen again. This story is a good example of what happens when you forget to do #2.

‘A few months ago, my wife, Elaine, and I were in Dallas for a conference and we decided to go out to dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant near our hotel. The place was crowded, and we had no reservation, but the maitre d’ said he thought he could seat us in 20 minutes or so. While we waited at the bar, Elaine ordered a shrimp cocktail. Before it was served, the maitre d’ came over to tell us he had a table available in the balcony overlooking the main dining room.

“I just ordered a shrimp cocktail,” Elaine said.”No problem,” said the maitre d’.

“I’ll have someone bring it to your table.”

The shrimp cocktail arrived right after we did. Elaine tasted the sauce and found it too spicy. Intending to dilute it a bit, she reached for a bottle of ketchup on the table. As she turned the cap on the bottle, there was a loud pop, and ketchup came shooting out, covering her sweater, her blouse, her skirt, her whole arm.

Elaine sat there stunned, drowning in ketchup. Our waitress came running over. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, handing us napkins. “Let me help you.” She worked feverishly to clean up the mess. “If you bring me your clothes tomorrow, I’ll have them cleaned for you,” she said.

The manager showed up a moment later and also offered his apologies. He wiped ketchup off a chair and sat down with us. “I’m terribly sorry about this,” he said and gave me his card. “Just send the cleaning bill to me. I’ll make sure it’s taken care of.”

Both Elaine and I were suitably impressed. Every business, including ours, has its share of accidental, unavoidable, nightmarish customer screwups. If we’re the customers involved, we mainly want people to act as though they’re sincerely sorry and to do what they can to repair the damage. We would have been quite satisfied if the manager had left it at that. But as he stood up to leave, he said, “In a way, you were lucky.”

“What do you mean?” Elaine asked.

“The last time this happened, the person got ketchup all over her hair. We had to send her to the beauty parlor. At least you just have it on your clothes.”

“You mean this has happened before?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” the manager said. “It happens fairly often. This part of the restaurant can get extremely hot during the day. We ask the waitresses to loosen the caps of the ketchup bottles, so the pressure doesn’t build up inside, but sometimes they forget, and the bottle explodes when the guest goes to open it.” With that, he excused himself and walked away.

Elaine and I didn’t know whether to be outraged or to burst out laughing. We were dumbfounded. I could think of all kinds of ways to make sure customers don’t have to endure ketchup bombs: Take the ketchup downstairs every evening; buy a small refrigerator for the balcony and keep the bottles there during the day; put the ketchup in vented containers; serve ketchup only when the customer asks for it. Instead the restaurant had come up with a solution that solved nothing. The bottles kept exploding; the ketchup kept flying; the staff kept cleaning up and apologizing; and the victims kept telling everyone they met about their experience, thereby turning what should have been a one-time embarrassment into an ongoing public relations problem. That’s what can happen when you don’t learn from your mistakes.’

Source: Problems, Problems | Street Smarts by Norm Brodsky | Inc.com

Photo used by permission  Topher McCulloch. Some rights reserved

An Unexpected Way To Learn From Our Failures

learning from Failure

Common sense tells us that we should learn from our mistakes.  Well, as Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.”

Some of the best learning available comes from failure.  This learning can be intellectual- like trying and failing to solve a math problem.  Or this learning can be moral- realizing that revenge and bitterness is self destructive, it eats away at your own soul.

In order to really learn from our mistakes we need to be deliberate.  We need to spend time thinking about why we failed.  The kernel of folly is to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. Every time we complete a project, achieve a milestone, or fall on our faces we have a chance to become our own teachers. The opportunity is especially rich when we fail.  A lot can be learned in the post-mortem examination of disappointment. About life. About ourselves.

Nothing shocking about that.

But there is another amazing opportunity that is lurking in our failures. And that is the idea of serendipity.  Serendipity is an accidental discovery. It is a happy accident. It is the pleasant surprise of looking for one thing, and finding something else, often something entirely different yet wonderful.  And many of the most amazing advances in human knowledge and culture have been made “by accident.”  And this is more common than you might think. Penicillin, microwaves, Velcro, Teflon, vulcanized rubber, Coca-Cola, radioactivity, the Post-it note, and Viagra were all the result of “accidental discoveries.”  In reality the list is much longer.

According to Steven Johnson in his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” one of the key elements in taking advantage of serendipity is paying attention. Evidently small versions of these accidental discoveries are all around us, but we may miss them if we don’t recognize them.  And we won’t recognize them if we don’t slow down and pay attention.  This involves taking the time to think about what is happening and why.

Here is another reason to be willing to fail and to learn from your failures. You might learn how to do better next time. Or you might discover something else altogether. Something that could change the world forever.

Gossiping About Ourselves

Face palm

Earlier today my wife and I were speaking about social media. It can be marvelous and miserable. We both dabble in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc to varying degrees. But it is REALLY easy to be carried by the stream of pop culture and join in without thinking. So, we talk about social media. We talk about how it can be both amazing and horrible. We try to learn from our own failures (which are many) and even from the missteps of others.  Sometimes when you see several people (or whole crowds) making the same mistake all at once, it appears as a pattern.  A kind of constellation of immaturity and bad behavior.

It is almost as if the kinds of stupid decisions that people wanted to keep private in the past, have now become a staple on social media.

The constellation we talked about this morning is the tendency of some people to parade their bad decisions on social media.  Sometimes it feels like I am watching someone get another “together forever” tattoo with the name of their new lover, written just beneath the one they ditched last month.  It is almost as if the kinds of stupid decisions that people wanted to keep private in the past, have now become a staple on social media.  The grand spectacle of folly that was once reserved for gossip rags and the Larry Springer show is now available to all of us. And not just as spectators, we can be on stage, or on the cover.  But there is no one to sue for libel, because we wrote it. And, oh yeah,  it’s true..

Many of the things I am now able to learn (forced to endure?) about my Facebook friends would have only been available to me in the past if someone had been trying to destroy their reputation through gossip.  I would really like to mind my own business, but you won’t let me! It’s not that I want people to lie, I just feel really uncomfortable when people gossip about themselves.

I would really like to mind my own business, but you won’t let me!

And sadly much of this adolescent flaunting is presented with a measure of boldness. “This is who I am, IF YOU DON’T LIKE MY BAD DECISIONS, YOU ARE THE ONE WITH THE PROBLEM.”   And I do end up with a problem, Facebook only has a “like” button.  I could speak up and be perceived as judgmental (a risk I am willing to take because I love my friends), or stay quiet while you document your own personal episode of Jackass for the world to see.

Regret is a powerful experience, tasted by all at some point. And one of the things that makes regret more damaging is publicity. It is one thing to trip and fall. It is another thing to trip and fall on camera and then to see our private moment of shame become a viral experience. It is one thing to be laughed at by a few friends and strangers, it is much harder to endure the scorn of millions.  And sadly, this level of regret is more potent when there is a permanent record. What will it be like when the posts you wrote last year, the ones that already embarrass you, can be resurrected to go viral again in 2035. And you think political campaigns are nasty now? It has been said that taking information off the internet is like taking pee out of a pool. Impossible.

So here is my advise:

1. Don’t give into the temptation to make a permanent, public record of every mistake and bad decision that you make.  One day you will want people to “forgive and forget.” Don’t make this any harder than it already is.

2. If something might really embarrass you if it ended up on film, then don’t just think twice about posting it on social media, think twice about doing it.  Some embarrassing things are perfectly innocent, and we need to learn to laugh at ourselves. Other embarrassing things can hurt us and other people.  And the only thing worse than driving toward a cliff, is driving toward it confidently with your foot on the acclerator.

3. Don’t be upset when friends and people that love you (especially older ones) have the courage to tell you that you are making bad choices.   There is a strong possibility you will soon agree with them. And you may need their help to clean up the mess.

Photo used courtesy of Hobvias Sudoneighm. Some rights reserved.