Mistakes. We all make them. Some mistakes we make are bigger than others. Some people make them more often than others. The bottom line, however, is that we all make them.
It has often been said that the best thing to do when one makes a mistake is to learn from the mistake. I would argue that “learning” from a mistake is too ambiguous and too broad a phrase to describe what to do following making a mistake. What is it exactly that you are to learn then? Not to make the mistake again or perhaps that you should simply accept your mistake and move on? The answer is to be found somewhere in the messy and gray area between these two questions.
When you work anywhere, one of the most important things you need to do is to establish credibility and trust with your colleagues. One excellent way to do this is to hold yourself accountable for your actions. Too often these days it seems that individuals fear recognizing their own fallibility, perhaps due to a fear of appearing weak, incompetent, or lacking confidence. However, to truly demonstrate confidence, to demonstrate competence, and to demonstrate strength to others is to openly acknowledge when you have made a mistake.
Let me take a step back and explain how this is relevant to working in-house.
When working in-house when your colleagues are a mix of other legal professionals and business people, to earn their trust, particularly those of the business people, you need to demonstrate to them that you recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Rather than pretend and give an answer you are not confident in, it is perfectly acceptable and, in fact, far better to simply say you do not know. Don’t stop there, however. If you do not know the answer to a question, besides simply saying you do not know, state that you will look into the question and come back with an answer. Doing this not only will assist you in earning the respect of others, but it also will help set expectations and not lead others towards believing you know the answers to things that you simply do not. Moreover, by giving an answer that is wrong, you risk not just damaging your own credibility, but putting the work of others at risk and even the company for which you work at risk.
Returning once more to what I wrote earlier, that “learning” from a mistake is too ambiguous and too broad a term, what I mean by that is simply that the mistakes that you make should be treated as an opportunity to learn, but not just learn in general, but to learn a set of specific things about yourself in order to improve and adapt. A mistake opens the door to discovering more about your limits, about what specific actions you took that led to the mistake being made, about what you can change going forward to not make a similar mistake again, about what things you cannot change and need to just adapt to, and to openly and readily acknowledge not just to yourself, but to others as well, that indeed a mistake was made. Yes, depending on the mistake made, you may feel embarrassed, ashamed, disheartened, or doubt. My advice would be do not fight these feelings or brush them aside. Recognize that you, like us all, are human. Recognize that when you make a mistake when working, you may want to ignore the mistake, but others surely will not.
So, in summary, to “learn” from a mistake you have made, in my view means to do several things. First, acknowledge it and acknowledge the various factors leading to it being made. Second, be openly accountable for making it. Third, allow yourself to feel what feelings you may feel about the mistake being made. Fourth, move forward knowing that by doing these things you are reinforcing your own credibility, trustworthiness, your own confidence in yourself, and others confidence in you.
To reinforce this point, let me tell you a little personal story to wrap up this blog post.
A few years ago I found myself working on a particularly complex agreement. Making things even more complex was the fact that there were multiple versions of the agreement in multiple languages. I was having a challenging time making heads and tails of the various documents. Moreover, the other side was obstinate and refusing to negotiate on nearly all of the key provisions that were roadblocks. Needing to come up with a way forward and under time pressure, I made a mistake. I made this mistake again and again. A high-level key businessperson kept discovering these mistakes and pointed each one out to not just me, but to my manager. Not only was I left feeling embarrassed and ashamed, I felt like I had let my team down. Indeed, I had let my team down, but by refusing to truly learn from the mistake the first time it occurred, I destroyed my confidence, others confidence in me, and my credibility. (And I made it again and again.)
Without going into the gory details, I am a far better lawyer and a better person now than I ever thought I could be. How? By dedicating myself to truly learning from the mistakes that I had made. It was not easy, it was not fun, and the process of learning itself was far longer than I had anticipated. However, as some have said and others will continue to say, accomplishing something worthwhile is never as easy or as quick as we would like doing so to be.