On making mistakes and being wrong

Each of us has made mistakes. How we own up to such mistakes makes a great deal of difference in our lives.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I watched South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem attempt not to talk about her imaginary meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as documented in her new book. She made a mistake. But she’s unwilling to talk about how or why. This makes things worse; her evasions add to the story of her dishonesty.

My mistakes

I am 65 years old. I have made an awful lot of mistakes in my life. I remember nearly all of them vividly. (Remembering them is a good way to make sure you learn about them.)

I have made mistakes that were poor personal choices. Some of my relationship choices in college were big mistakes. My first marriage was a mistake. Going to graduate school rather than entering the working world after I graduated was a mistake. Failing to keep the stock in one of the startup companies I was working in was a $750,000 mistake. Failing to develop better eating and exercise habits is a mistake I am dealing with. These mistakes affected me more than they did anyone else. I have often thought about why I made these mistakes. I learned from these mistakes. I have made much smarter relationship, career, and financial choices since then.

I regret some of the choices I made as my family was raising our children. If you are a parent, you have made mistakes, too; it is inevitable. We learn, and we do the best we can. My kids have turned out all right, and my marriage has been mostly wonderful through 34 years.

Looking back, I regret some of my behavior at work. As a supervisor, I was a terrible micromanager. My arrogance did not lead to good work relationships. I was a poor listener. My treatment of female colleagues was not sufficiently respectful. These were hard things to learn, since they were so tangled up with who I was. But I truly believe I am a better person now for learning these things.

I have made highly visible professional mistakes. I designed a product that no one bought. I predicted that HDTV would fail; that was wrong. I predicted that interactive TV would generate $45 billion dollars by the early 2000s; that prediction was off by $45 billion. I predicted that legal problems would crush YouTube; instead, Google bought it and made it a big success. I predicted that social media would overall be a force for good, which it hasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I think I am right far more often than I am wrong, and I believe that I am a good person. But like everyone else, I have made many mistakes, and I feel no shame in admitting that.

Why can’t people be honest about their mistakes?

I would really like to hear more politicians, corporate leaders, media figures, and thought leaders stand up and say, “I was wrong.” I’m not just talking about apologizing. I’m talking about acknowledging mistakes.

I want to know. Why were you wrong? What were the consequences of your being wrong? Who was hurt by your being wrong? In what way were you wrong? What did you learn from being wrong? What are you going to do differently?

In my experience, denial interferes with learning. Defending yourself just generates more struggle and visibility for your mistakes. Explaining yourself and what you learned, on the other hand, allows you to grow, and for everyone else to see you growing. It also helps with guilt and allows people to move on from their mistakes. Why don’t we celebrate that?

When a plane crashes, the authorities undertake an extended investigation intended to determine what went wrong, why, and what should change in the future.

Why don’t we do that as human beings?

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  1. President George W. Bush was asked what mistakes he had made as President. “Probably some of the people I appointed.” I suspect that 45 has answered the same way.

  2. There’s a big difference between making a mistake and outright lying.

    For some people lying has become a tactic and a power move.

    Yes, I’m lying, you know I’m lying, I know you know I’m lying, what are you going to do about it?

    Sometimes the liars end up in court. Often, they get away with it. Kristi Noem got caught, but I’ll bet she doesn’t mind. It gets her into the news. Her fans will forgive this “mistake” and she doesn’t care what they say in “fake news”.

  3. What’s implicit in this is self-awareness and willingness to learn/be curious. I’m genuinely not sure where many politicians, corporate leaders, media figures, and thought leaders are on the spectrum of willing and able. I’d guess many are happily blinded by their inability because then there’s no conversation about willingness.

    But so many things in my world (Lean process improvement, high reliability organization, etc) require this sort of thinking AND open communication. And why? Because it makes things better overall. I appreciate people who create (and defend) those cultural norms for a group or organization and make the space for the subsequent important conversations to happen.