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Some thoughts from tracking "lessons learned" for a year

Around this time last year I started keeping a log of "lessons learned," after reading Curt Rosengren's fantastic essay The genius of mistakes. I did this because I knew I'd be making a ton of mistakes in switching careers to workflow coaching from programming, and I wanted to a) acknowledge them in a positive way, and b) learn from them.

Here's the basic idea: Rosengren calls it a mistake genius journal and describes it this way:
Next time you make a mistake, don't beat yourself up for it. Celebrate the genius of your mistakes, and be thankful for the insight you've just been given. Learn from them and ask yourself, "How can I apply what I've just learned?"

You might even try keeping a mistake genius journal. Not a place for you to berate yourself for how many mistakes you make, but a place for you to actively learn from what has happened. Explore the mistake, explore what insights you've gained as a result, and summarize those insights into key points.

This will do two things. First, it will crystallize your learning so you can easily draw from it in the future, and second, it will start developing a habit of looking for the positive side of your mistakes, rather than beating yourself up about them.
I've been tracking these as entries in my Big-Arse Text File, and include the event, plus any ideas for the future (ways to avoid, what I learned, etc.)

The result? As of today I have over 120 entries, which means on average I noticed something useful every three days (!) I have to admit, looking at mistakes as learning opportunities, and tracking them, has changed the dynamic for me, in many cases taking the emotional "oomph" out of them (I used to be pretty hard on myself about them).

Not that they're all screw ups - some of them are surprises as a result of experimentation. (For example, I'm now handing out door prizes at the end of workshops. I thought doing so might be a bit silly, but it helps me make some points, and my participants enjoy it. Plus, it's a fun way to finish strong.)

Below I'll include some example lessons learned, plus references on making mistakes. Overall, I recommend the technique.

How about you - Do you track your mistakes? How do you learn from them? Do you have any good ones you'd like to share?

Example lessons learned
  • Fees: When meeting with a prospect, as what her budget is up front. Otherwise you might find out you're in different ballparks. Better to get it out in the open - while still following the principles of Value-based Fees, of course.
  • Forgetting names: If you don't recognize a person's name when she calls, don't pretend to know her. Either apologize, ask, then move on, or ask if it's OK to call back in a few minutes, look her up, and start from there.
  • Communication: Be clear in your communication, including whether you want to have a relationship, how long you can talk on the phone, etc. If you aren't interested something, kindly but clearly say "no thank you." This is much better than leaving it for later because you don't want to hurt someone's feelings. This also means replying to an email to say no, rather than not replying at all (see What's your maximum response time?). You might be surprised how understanding (and grateful) people are.
  • Presentations: After answering a participant's question, instead of asking "Does that make sense?" (my habit) ask "Does that answer your question?" Much clearer!
  • Networking: Relationships take time - Maintain them regularly and be patient. (I have an acquaintance who I talked to early, and then went on to host a radio program. It would have been better for both of us if I'd have had more regular contact over time. As it was, I reached out after the announcement, with no reply from her. Then again, it might have been something else entirely!)
  • Planning: Prepare sooner! I tend to put off preparation, and have to hustle at the last minute (with the attendant stress). Instead, take some time to plan out the major pieces, how long each will take, and put some milestones in your hard landscape.
  • Dialog: Be careful when you're excited about something - It can be natural to come on too strong without knowing it. Much better to ask questions, listen, and determine the other person's interests and passion. Then, if there's a connection, go with it. This notion sometimes helps me:
    We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. -- Epictetus
  • Humor: Being funny can be entertaining, but be careful - don't make fun of an individual whom you don't know well, and don't joke about elected leaders.
  • Networking: Treat every interaction as an opportunity to get to know the person - don't be "all business." Remember, people are most interesting when they're talking about something they're passionate about. Be a detective and ask questions to discover what their "thing" is.
  • Networking/interviewing: Do your research. There's no excuse for coming into an interaction not knowing a lot about the other person, her company, etc. However, don't make it sound like you're a PI either!

Words of wisdom on mistakes

The main point is that it's scary making mistakes, but they're inevitable when you're starting something new. Try to tap in to that sense of openness and excitement that kids have, and remember: You can't hire someone else to make your mistakes for you. You can (and should) read to learn from others, but there's no substitute for getting in there and doing it.

That said, maybe the following will help...
  • Quotes: There are many great quotes about mistakes; one of my favorites is:
    If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. --John Wooden
  • "Maxim 10: Make mistakes, please" - from Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson has a bunch of great thoughts about mistakes, including creating value from what live hands you (i.e., making it a meaningful mistake, not a failure):
    • What can I learn from this experience?
    • How can i use this experience to positive advantage?
    • How can I learn to better myself as a result of this experience?

  • Rosengren has this great follow-up: How to learn from your mistakes
  • Ryan Ambrose has a nice post on thinking about failure: Overcoming Failure: It's What You Do Next That Matters
  • Stephanie Winston, in her book Organized for Success: Top Executives and CEOs Reveal the Organizing Principles That Helped Them Reach the Top, says correction (not perfection) is what to focus on: "Almost any mistake can be corrected. Better to make the decision than always be right."
  • Finally, from What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School by Mark H. McCormack talks about the importance of not being afraid to take chances and make mistakes. Yes, "I was wrong" must enter your vocabulary, but consider this:
    The people who are least secure about their abilities have the hardest time admitting their mistakes. They fail to realize that making a mistake - and admitting it - owning up to it - are two totally separate acts. It is not the mistake itself but how a mistake is handled that forms the lasting impression.

Reader Comments (12)

This sounds like a superb idea. I shall add this mistake genius journal to my list of end of year resolutions.

December 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPascal Venier

Sounds good, Pascal - I look forward to hearing about your experience.

December 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks, again, Matthew, for mentioning Improv Wisdom. I think your "mistake genius" journal is a brilliant idea. I am in your debt now for a excellent exercise. Hope your holiday is full of happy surprises.

December 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPatricia Ryan Madson

Thanks very much for reading, Patricia. Credit to Curt Rosengren for the idea, of course. Cheers!

December 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Excellent Matt! So cool to see that the idea has been useful for you. It's fun to see actual down-the-road outcomes like this from one of my posts.

December 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCurt Rosengren

Thanks, Curt. Much appreciated.

December 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I came across this nice article describing how to use the lessons file in a more principled way: [ Success Books: Success Secrets: A twist on Journaling | http://successbooks.blogspot.com/2006/12/success-secrets-twist-on-journaling.html ]. It includes tips like writing a "monthly highlights" document each month to track:

o Habits I am trying to adopt
o Examples where particular ideas, habits, or courses of action are actually working
o Small moments of truth or beauty that I might have forgotten


December 26, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Here's a nice '97 article from FastCompany: [ Make Smarter Mistakes | http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/11/mistakes.html ]. Main sections:

I. The cover-up is always worse than the crime.
II. If it's your team, it's your mistake.
III. Follow-up is as important as follow-through.
IV. Seize the moment of truth.
V. It pays to "make" mistakes.
VI. Sometimes the best fix is a quick fix.

References: [ Amazon.com: Celebrate Your Mistakes: And 77 Other Risk-Taking, Out-Of-The-Box Ideas from Our Best Companies: Books: John W., Jr. Holt,Jon Stamell,Melissa Field | http://www.amazon.com/Celebrate-Your-Mistakes-Out-Box/dp/0786304863/sr=1-1/qid=1167314444/ref=sr_1_1/104-6686697-6048709?ie=UTF8&\1s=books ]

December 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Super-useful post, Matt. Thanks!

January 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRainier

Thanks very much, Rainier.

January 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I like the idea of keeping a mistake genius journal. It is a good resource to help us improve ourselves so that we do not commit the same mistake over and over again. I will definitely keep one myself.

January 7, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterinspire

Thanks for your comment, inspire. Let me know how it works out!

January 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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