Make no mistake, mistakes will not be tolerated

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Practical advice when there’s zero-tolerance for mistakes

Type “mistake” or “failure” into your favorite search engine and you will see thousands of articles, videos, memes, and inspirational quotes speaking to the superpowers of their namesake: “Failure teaches.” “Failure inspires.” “Failure is essential.” “Mistakes are opportunities to learn.”

Leave the search engines behind, though, and you’ll quickly see that while the ability to make mistakes might be distributed equally, being understanding when failure actually happens is not.

We see examples of resistance to failure daily – caustic Yelp reviews because of simple mistakes in the kitchen, airline passengers who scream at gate agents because of air traffic control issues, supervisors who humiliate direct reports over errors made during a presentation, and parents who explode when children bring home a bad report card (to name a few).

Business pundits and self-help gurus who tout the importance of failure have often lost sight of the diversity of their audiences. In my experience, I find that the very people who pitch failure as essential to success fail to recognize that a person’s response to failure is learned behavior and has a strong correlation to fear.

Take my personal story, for example. My parents had a very simple rule about mistakes of any kind: They aren’t allowed. There was no scale of one-to-ten of mom and dad’s reactions to mistakes. On my parents’ scale there was only one number: 10. If you made a mistake, there was hell to pay – whether it was glass of spilled water at the dinner table or a ding put in the family car.

You can surmise, therefore, that I quickly learned (to the best of my abilities – I was only ten years old) to limit the mistakes I made. I became a perfectionist – incredibly competitive, detail-oriented, highly structured, resourceful, independent, and an excellent communicator. In addition, I learned to associate failure with fear and shame.  

Now forty years old, I remain largely unchanged with one distinct exception: I have a unique perspective on failure. While I reject the extreme philosophies of my parents, I did take the time later in life to understand why and how they cultivated their approach. In doing so, I feel inspired to share my opinion: There are far too many articles about why failure is important and far too few with advice on how to cope with, manage, and survive failure.

Failure can help you learn positive life skills

All failure is not good, and all failure will not lead to infinite wisdom and success, but I’ve learned that it can help you develop some positive life skills:

1. Empathy. Understanding that people’s opinions and behaviors are informed by the baggage they carry helps in self-management during times of failure. This doesn’t right the wrongs of others, but it can help put their positions in perspective. My parents’ intolerance for mistakes and their extreme techniques were not because they were abusive barbarians. They were traumatized by their early days as immigrants and they wanted to protect me. In their minds, if I was perfect then I would be treated better, become successful, and live the life they came to the US to secure for me. The baggage of their traumas drove their actions, and understanding this has helped me to manage my mistakes and failures without being too harsh on them or myself.

2. Apologizing, explaining, and justifying only when absolutely necessary. Acknowledgment and swift resolution are more impactful than hollow apologies and justifications. And trying to explain yourself just makes you look bad sometimes. Need to say sorry? Do it after you acknowledge the mistake, and save the backstory for after the dust has settled.

3. Understanding that not everything is about you. There’s a tendency for people to make everything about themselves and then react from that assumption. Did your supervisor blow up when you handed in a report with a typo? It’s probably not about you. Did the car you merged in front of lay on their horn and give you the finger? Not about you. Instead of making it about you and adding stress to an already stressful situation, let it go and move on.

4. Asking open-ended questions. Questions help you gain information so you can respond to what you know, versus reacting based on what you think or fear. In times of failure, ask questions both introspectively (i.e., What could I have done better?) and to learn more about a reaction (i.e., What specifically did I do to upset you?). Questions like these will help you correct the situation more effectively than acting based on your assumptions. (Caution: There have been times when I’ve done this and received more rage in return. The best follow-up advice I can give is: Don’t always expect an answer.)

5. Picking your battles. Sometimes resolution, mutual understanding, or a positive outcome isn’t worth it. In my life, my obsession with perfection and being liked has taught me this lesson the hard way. Not everyone will like you. Not everyone is working with a full deck. Before engaging post-fail, ask yourself: Is this the hill I want to die on?

6. Leading by example. Always work from the assumption that people are watching and learning. How you handle failure – whether it’s yours or someone else’s – matters.  When my daughter knocks over her water glass at the dinner table, I can tell you what I do not do. I’m motivated by the fact that I don’t want my grandchildren to go through what I did at their age.

7. Learning to let go. I still struggle with this but remember: S&@% happens. We have all met people who still bring up mistakes and failures long after their time. Do everything you can to not be that person. (On the other hand, if you’re in the presence of that person remember a response is not always required.)

Finally, and perhaps the hardest failure-related skill of all:

8. Knowing when to walk away. This is particularly important when your career, happiness, or health are dependent on another. There comes a point when being around zero-tolerance people shifts from being a distraction to being destruction. Taking safety and other key factors (finances, family, etc.) into consideration, it is essential to know what is referred to as a “BATNA”: Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. In short, who/what are you willing to walk away from? Know your personal BATNA.

I’m certainly not trying to diminish the wisdom of celebrity pundits like Simon Sinek, Brené Brown, or Tony Robbins. But as “failure” continues to remain a topic du jour (I suppose that when famous people talk about something it affirms or soothes the actions of regular people like you and me), my point is that failure isn’t always a tool for cathartic learning and growth. Mostly, mistakes and failures are just a routine part of the day that can be disruptive, distracting, and a downright bummer. For those times, I hope my advice will come in handy.