The value of mistakes

“Anyway, the point is, almost every startup makes mistakes. The hard part is recognizing and learning from them and then making your company better. Mistakes are allowed. Not learning from them is not.”

Those were the last lines in an article I read recently on Forbes about a social enterprise that was continually making mistakes.  You would think all of these mistakes would translate into failure.  That’s the concept we are familiar with as a society, right?  We screw up and we are dubbed failures.  We make a bunch of mistakes on a test and we get big “F’s.”  We don’t finish school and we are perceived as drop outs.  We get fired and we feel inadequate.

Yet for this company, that was not the case.  Those mistakes were not the end all be all of their existence.  Why?  Because instead of beating themselves up over it, they decided to learn from those experiences and apply the lessons they learned to the next set of decisions they faced.  Some of those mistakes even led them down paths they never would have found themselves on and then those new paths led to success.  What if they equated mistakes with quitting? Perhaps they would have just thrown in the towel and called it a day.

I’m sure this isn’t the first time you have heard this concept.  “Learn from your mistakes” is as common a phrase as any.  However, I had always applied the idea to my personal life and never fully realized how relevant this concept is to businesses, especially startups.  From a business perspective, I have always tried to avoid mistakes because I thought they meant I was unsuccessful.  Yet according to Paul Schoemaker in his article “You Need to Make More Mistakes” on, “Successful people tend to have a different view about mistakes than most ordinary people. Not only are they more tolerant of them (in themselves and others), but they often embrace them.”  Imagine that concept! Mistakes as the key to success, eh?

We dream big at New Leaf because imagining a better world is what motivates us and keeps us going.  For that reason, we are commonly perceived as idealistic young dreamers with a cool office, flashy graphics, and a bunch of interesting ideas, but lacking any real direction.  We have tried out a lot of those ideas and most of them have failed.  They just simply didn’t work.  Were they mistakes?  You betchya.  But we embraced them and now have a good idea of what doesn’t work, so we are more prepared to focus on what does.  Experimentation is our forte.

Mistakes aren’t accepted as the status quo because they usually stem from risk taking behaviors.  The reason risks are typically so intimidating is because of the unknowns associated with them.  Taking a risk makes us vulnerable because we are unsure of what the outcome will be on the other side.  The ambiguity of risks used to scare me, but now it intrigues me.  I am starting to recognize the value of risks, I may even contemplate buying a python.

This morning, I had the pleasure of hearing Coquese Washington, the head coach of the Penn State Women’s Basketball team, speak about her experiences setting goals and working to achieve them.  After her talk, I asked her about her relationship with risks and how they play into her mindset pertaining to the goals she sets.  She explained that the decision to accept the job at Penn State was one of the biggest risks she has ever taken.  Leaving her comfortable position at Notre Dame and coming to Penn State in the midst of the Lady Lions losing streak was not the safest choice.  Yet it was the one she made because of the support system she knew she would have here.   If a supportive team and administration were not present in the equation, she would never have chosen to come coach the Lions.

Listening to Coquese caused me to think of the risks New Leaf is taking.  We are preparing for a huge transition into this new office and much of what awaits us on the other side of the tunnel is entirely unknown.  Eric and I could work 24/7, create a flawless business plan, hash out every single detail, and still fail.  What makes me confident that we won’t is the presence of our New Leaf support system.  We have an amazing network and community of people behind us who want the space as much as we do.  Every conversation I have with someone about the new office rejuvenates me as I imagine ways he or she can utilize the space.  Our support system is my biggest motivator.  Without it, I would not be taking this risk.

So what is our next risk?  Before the python, we want to try another experiment.  After getting a dose of inspiration from Coquese, I came down to the office and saw some new Eric scribbles on the board behind our desks.  He saw my eyes scrunch in confusion as he reassured me, “We’ll get to that.”

Five minutes later and Eric is telling me about his latest idea.  “What if we just start a co-working pilot down in our current office? We’ll move some stuff out, buy some of the desks, move them down here, bring some tenants in and see what happens.”

My reply? “Okay, sounds good.”

So that is that and that is what we are hoping to do.  We need to figure out how this co-working concept will play out so we might as well start now.  It’s a risk, but the lessons we learn from this pilot run will prepare us that much more for the new space.  Eric and I have learned to be agile and prepared for change because we know that is what our organization needs to succeed.  We aren’t afraid to try something and fail.  If we were, we probably would have been long gone by now.

Keeping with my inspirational sports theme of the day, I will share a quote by John Wooden, six time national basketball coach of the year that resonated with me, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.  I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”  Well, New Leaf is ready for some doing and is prepared to learn from the plenty of mistakes I am sure we will make along the way.


3 thoughts on “The value of mistakes

  1. good job fulton! Our teacher was just telling us that we are going to make plenty of mistakes with our first clients, but it is the best way to learn. Very inspirational. Good luck I am rooting for ya!

  2. This is a fantastic post. I will share my ideas.

    1. I don’t think the classic situation of not doing well on tests and then getting re-energised as you realise that you have learned from your mistake of not doing well on a test relates to risk in a practical way. Here is why. Tests are used as a measure of our intelligence for education – degrees and certificates. They do not measure risk – they measure how well you can perform in writing things down on paper. The risk here is how you approach the itself and who you surround yourself with, not the test itself. Being a dubbed as a failure because you did poorly on a test does not have a clear connection with risk: how can it be compared to you meeting a potential client and pitching a sale, the risk being you are not sure if your client will go for it: unlike the test where everything is certain, here there is total uncertainty.

    2. The concept of a “mistake” is hard to define. So many things that were/are seen as a mistake become correct: when Pete Sampras, a tennis player, changed from a two handed backhand to a one handed backhand, he suffered a drop. He lost more. People called him out for his huge “mistake”. Within 5 years or so he was the top ranked player in the world and (until Federer came along) regarded as the greatest of all the time – the point being it is hard to define a mistake unless we have full understanding regarding the context and history and we know that is… impossible! Someone may see what you do as a mistake, some may see it it as a correct coice.

    3. A gambler playing Blackjack has to make a choice after his hand is delivered. A lot of people would expect him to try move A – say, hitting for another card. But the gambler knows from statistical analysis that move B is the one that should be taken. He selects move B and loses the game but he made the correct choice, it may have been a mistake in one sense but it was not mistake in another sense as in the long-run, his decision to select move B will give him a better pay off. In this sense, mistakes are hard to define.

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