Getting Over It — Big Success Requires Big Failure

In one of my client sessions this week, we discussed how making mistakes is actually one of the keys to having big success in business. The problem is how to deal with the crappy feelings that come up as a result of making mistakes.

It reminds me of a story I read recently in Psychology Today about a famous scientist who mapped his massive success back to one pivotal mistake.

At 4 years old he took a bottle of milk from the refrigerator and accidentally poured it onto the floor. Instead of getting mad, his mother said, "Oh my, what a wonderful mess you have made!  Would you like to play in it before we clean it up?"

And so instead of feeling horrible about the "mistake" he had made, the little boy experienced it as something positive. His mother then said, "Now what we have here is a failed experiment in how to take a big bottle of milk out of the refrigerator with two little hands. So now let's go outside and fill up the bottle with water and see if you can figure out how to carry it without dropping it." And so they did.

Now, it’s great to know that this level of comfort with mistakes is possible, right? But it’s not the way that most of us handle them. On top of that, our parents were probably not that “evolved”, bless their souls.

For many of us, we walk around trying our hardest to never ever ever make a mistake, and when we do, we beat ourselves up about it for days. This was certainly the case with my client.

She told me about several public mistakes her company made all in one day. A customer even got enraged and balled them out about it. They made amends, reimbursed the customer, and in the end the man left with a positive impression. However, for the rest of the weekend my client felt regret and shame. And then on top of that, she felt shame for having shame… a double whammy!

“How am I going to be the leader I need to be for my people if every mistake impacts me this much?! What will happen when it’s a really BIG mistake?”

It’s a great question. A very valid leadership question.

For those of us who are committed to being great leaders, especially in business, we are going to need to make mistakes. It’s actually required. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t playing a big enough game. So, how do you get more comfortable with making mistakes?

If you aren't making mistakes,
you aren't playing a big enough game.

During our session, my client and I brainstormed all of the tools in her “leadership toolbox” to deal with the negative feelings around making a mistake so that she’d be capable taking even bigger risks in the future with less negative impact.

Here’s our list, and it is by no means comprehensive. I’d love to hear your additions, so please post them in the comments section of this blog.

1. Cultivate a new mindset around mistakes. Expect to make mistakes. “Fail hard, fail fast, fail often” is a phrase that comes to mind. Take Mark Zuckerberg’s advice, “If things aren’t breaking, then you’re not moving fast enough. People learn by making mistakes.”


2. Get the learning from the mistake right away. Sit down, with yourself or your team, and note what went well, what were the mistakes, what you learned and what you will do differently next time. Depersonalize the mistake and see it as feedback rather than failure.

3. Question your thoughts regarding the mistake. One of my favorite exercises on this comes from Byron Katie's "The Work". In The Work you conduct deep inquiry on your beliefs. For example, your thought may be, “I shouldn’t make mistakes."

You then ask yourself:

  • Is this (thought) true?
  • What happens to you when you believe this thought? How do you treat yourself and others?
  • Who would you be without the thought?
  • Turn the thought around to the opposite. Is it as true as the previous thought?

An example might look like:

  • It’s not true that I shouldn’t because I do. In reality, mistakes are made. Saying that they shouldn’t is arguing with reality, which is just crazy talk.
  • I am very mean to myself and judgmental of others, which is not good for anyone.
  • I would just get over it. I would allow myself to do more because I’m not worried about it. I’d be free, more creative, etc.
  • I should make mistakes - yes, that’s true. I should because I do. And it’s good to make mistakes sometimes to learn.

4. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. If you’re feeling regret, sadness, shame, or anger, allow yourself to breathe and feel. Maybe tears need to come out. Maybe you need to bury your face in a pillow and scream. Part of what keeps the emotions sitting in the pit of your stomach for days is that you are suppressing natural human emotion. Let it out.

5. Understand the biology of your feelings. According to Success Coach and former nurse, Janet Zaretsky of The Zenith Business, the mistake is not the problem, it is your brain’s reaction to the threat of getting in trouble. In recent years, neuroscientists have identified this threat reaction in our brains which happens even in the case of perceived threats. Threat and fear of repercussions trigger a chemical cocktail which results in the “fight, flight, freeze or appease others” response. When your brain is bathed in these chemicals your brain's ability to connect to the problems solving areas and your creative genius is slowed down significantly. To down regulate those negative neurochemicals and stimulate the happy chemical cocktail, you need to take a few steps:

  • Ask yourself, “Can I survive that?”
  • Ask yourself,  “What is the worst thing that could happen?”
  • Recog nize the reaction as a brain reaction.

Just doing these few steps allows you to begin to relax. And then you can start to get real about what actually happened.  The facts are almost always not nearly as significant as you make them when your brain triggers all kinds of scary responses.

You can learn the lesson and move on. When you can regulate your brain chemicals, you can return to your genius.

Please add your recommended “mistake coping” methods below in the comments so we can all benefit from your genius too!


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~ Kim