Stumbling into Proficiency: Four Ways Mistakes Can Improve Your Productivity

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE 

“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.Richelle E. Goodrich, American author.

Experience sets veteran workers apart from novices and is a large part of what makes them attractive and important to any organization. Most veterans aren’t necessarily smarter than their younger colleagues or more talented. They have much more experience, wisdom, and better connections. More significantly, veteran workers know what they’re supposed to do, how to do it, and have done it so many times it’s become ingrained habit. But here’s their real advantage: Veterans not only know what to do — they also know what not to do, and when not to do it.

As a new employee, you may learn how to avoid pitfalls if you have excellent documentation to work with, or better, a mentor to show you the ropes. But most of us learn the boundaries of our functions and our jobs best by, well, screwing up. Most schools don’t teach this aspect of business well, except through their tests. Rarely do you see courses like The Greatest Mistakes in Business History or Things Never to Code in LISP in formal curricula, much less How to Learn by Failing.

I’d argue that occasional mistakes, when taken to heart, hone your productivity to its keenest possible edge. Here’s why:

  1. Mistakes close off non-productive paths. Legend has it that Thomas Edison tried thousands of possibilities before he invented effective, long-lasting light bulbs. When asked about it, he declared he had not suffered thousands of failures, he had just found a lot of ways that didn’t work. Every false trial taught him what not to do. The same happens whenever you make a mistake; you learn what not to do in a particular situation, ultimately increasing your productivity over time.
  2. Mistakes refine your routine. Work, like all of life, requires trial-and-error sometimes. Some things you try will work great; others will prove abject failures. Let go of the things that don’t work and keep trying new things until you’ve smoothed out your routine to something simple and consistently successful.
  3. Mistakes teach you your limits. When you hit a wall and fail, or simply make a goofy error, ask yourself tough questions about what happened and why. If you’ve been stretching yourself to use a new statistics program you don’t entirely understand, and you utterly fail to get decent results, you’ve met a personal limit. It doesn’t have to be permanent; you can always take a class on using the program effectively or hire someone else. Some limits may prove inherent; if you disastrously fail to juggle your projects while working a 70-hour week, but do fine with a 45-hour week, you’d best pull pack to the shorter work week.
  4. Mistakes often include seeds for future success. The old saying, “It’s an evil wind that blows no good,” encapsulates this concept. Even if an idea or attempt fails catastrophically, not only will you learn not to do it again (a worthwhile nugget of wisdom in itself), you can reflect upon it and see what parts did work, and how you can put them to use for something else. For example: Silly Putty was originally invented as a substitute rubber during World War II, but the military passed on it because it wasn’t a good replacement. After realizing its stretchy and bouncy properties, the inventor marketed it as a children’s toy — and it became one of the best-selling products in history.

When It’s All a Mistake…

You can’t completely avoid making mistakes at work. Modern business life is just too difficult for that to be possible. While I’m not here to tell you to learn by deliberately failing, I am here to tell you to be willing to try and fail so you can learn from your accidental errors. You’ve heard the advice before: fail fast, fail forward.

Some of us are afraid to risk anything, for fear of losing a job or career. But let’s face it: most work failures are “puppy” mistakes, really. Do you send a puppy to the pound just because it made a mess once or twice? No, you show it the error of its ways and let it try again. Eventually, it’ll catch on. The same is true of employees. Canny supervisors know you’re going to fail occasionally; not just early on, but also later in your career.

So, when you make a mistake, learn from it. Take whatever bricks remain of your failure, and start rebuilding something new. It may end up being your personal Taj Mahal.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.




  1. Sue Sheridan says:

    This is so good, not just for work but in so many aspects of life.