Is it Really a Mistake?

As a child, I loved playing sports. I tried everything – from soccer and softball to volleyball and cross country. 

I’ll never forget that one humid, Ohio summer though when I joined the swim team and I could not be more excited. A friend of mine was on the team and my joining was part ‘I want to be like her’ and part ‘I want to be good at this, like I want to be the best at whatever sport I play.’ 

Cue the first day of swim practice…I hated everything about it. I vomited at the side of the pool, I cried and I didn’t want to go back. I thought I had made a huge mistake joining the swim team. 

I went home that evening and I was terrified to tell my parents that I did not want to continue. I sat with my dad that night and through my many tears, he said one simple thing to me – “it’s just not your bag.” 

He went on to tell me that everything is not meant for you. If you don’t like it, you just don’t like it. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. 

I learned a very valuable lesson that night. I didn’t make a mistake. I didn’t knowingly join the swim team thinking I would hate it and would quit after the first day. I learned that it’s not a good use of my energy spending time doing something that I don’t like. Instead, spend time honing other skills or playing a sport I do enjoy. This was my very first memory of personal growth.  

So, it’s no surprise that I don’t like the word “mistake.” I believe everything we experience in life is an opportunity for some lesson or growth. The word mistake has just always felt harsh and never quite appropriate in my book. 

The topic of mistakes came up recently for me in a conversation and I was again reminded that the word isn’t just something I detest but also, as I delved in deeper, was something I see as misunderstood.

I decided to dig a little further and looked up the dictionary definition of mistake. According to Merriam-Webster, mistake is:

a wrong judgment
a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention

Looking at it through this lens, I’m presented with a new reason why I don’t care for this word. Based on this definition, mistake implies pre-meditation or a certain level of awareness. 

That you knowingly did something wrong. 

In business, people make “mistakes” all of the time. You add an extra zero onto a product order that has a huge fiscal impact. You create a product that you learn post launch is offensive to a specific group and decide to take it off shelves. You bit off more than you can chew and promise something to a client that you aren’t able to deliver on. 

However, the vast majority of these mistakes aren’t actually deliberate mistakes. They are something you learn from after the fact, not before you make it. 

Think of a mistake you knowingly make (oops, I ran that red light)…

These are very different than those mistakes we often make at the office. These mistakes are almost always not intentional. They are accidental. People don’t purposely try to sabotage the company they work for, let alone themselves. 

Perhaps there was a time you made a mistake at work and your boss bit your head off screaming, ”how could you let this happen?” The reality of the matter is you didn’t let it happen — these things are never intentional. 

So if it’s not intentional, is it really a mistake? 

I argue that it’s not. It’s simply an oversight.

And oversight is by definition an unintentional failure to notice or do something. Now THIS is a much better word to use. This is what more accurately happens 99% of the time. 

It’s unintentional, but it still happens nonetheless. Why does it happen? For a variety of reasons, but in my experience they happen most often due to one key factor: People are moving too fast without enough time or resource. 

To prevent yourself from potential oversight, I offer this tip:

Have the courage to speak up and say no to additional work or projects if you don’t have the capacity. Keep an ongoing tab on your teams to understand how they are feeling in regards to their workload. Have the hard conversations to be honest about what timing is realistic. Raise your hand when you need additional resources or more time.

I know that’s not always easy (like quitting something) and sometimes not possible, but it’s a step in the right direction. Less time and resources shouldn’t automatically mean more work and tighter timelines for everyone else. 

Accidents happen to all of us. The best course of action is to be honest as soon as you become aware of it, own your part, apologize and move on. But, what can we proactively do to help our teams and ourselves to prevent them? 

From top to bottom you should be able to have sometimes uncomfortable conversations at every level to set your organization and teams up for success, even if it might mean pushing back that launch by two weeks.

Nicole Miller
Nicole Miller
Nicole leads the Action team for Courageous. She has spent her career toggling between brands she’s passionate about and agencies she can produce for - leading brands like Kashi, Mead, Harrah’s, Macy’s, and Sun-Maid from strategy to execution.
LinkedIn @nicolemariea

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