Making Milestones out of Mistakes

Brandy Lee is Crescendo’s program manager. She stays busy organizing our efforts that help you do business better.

I failed two crucial projects in college. At the time, these failures felt like embarrassing set-backs; but now a decade into my career, I look at them as milestones in my education.

To achieve failing grade #1, all I had to do was make a simple citation error and then repeat it 30 times throughout a paper. And failing grade #2 was the result of following a classmate’s less-than-accurate instructions to complete a huge research project.

For this straight-A perfectionist, getting any failing grade was absolutely devastating. But as a true Millennial, I also assumed both grades would be reversed once the professors heard my side of the story. “Why would one simple mistake need to be counted 30 times?” And “hey, I followed the instructions I was given perfectly. It wasn’t my fault the other guy told me wrong.”

Surely my professors could make an exception for these minor oversights, especially when they considered what a good, ambitious student I was and how important my 4.0 was to me. They wanted me to continue loving education and striving for academic excellence… right?

Wrong. My arguments (and pleas) had no effect and I was forced to begrudgingly say goodbye to my perfect GPA.

Nowadays I see this same story played out in many an office environment.

We eager Millennials can easily start assuming that our strong work ethic and ambitious career goals somehow entitle us to the constant praise and moral support from our higher-ups. But then, when we make our first mistakes we start to take professional criticism personally. How dare we get called out for that minor misstep? Don’t they see how hard I’m working around here? But of course, they had to point out that one tiny little problem rather than the other hundred things I did right.

Too often, we don’t get it – much like my 20-year old self didn’t get it. The problem was my perspective – I thought the main issue was me. My priority was maintaining my personal objective rather than objectively looking at my work product. In reality, I messed up and the papers I turned in got the grades they deserved. The grades weren’t personal, they were just accurate.

Oftentimes it’s the same scenario at work. Professional criticism is meant to help improve your work product. It shouldn’t be viewed as an attack, but as an insight into your professional weak spots you may have overlooked. By pointing out your failures – big or small – your colleagues are giving you the chance to advance in ways a spotless record wouldn’t allow. Of course it helps when critiques are communicated with grace, but even a bristly remark can advance your career if you glean some truth about yourself from it.

Once I got over myself (about 5 years later), I realized what important lessons these professors had taught me through my bad grades. Failure #1 instilled in me a vigilant attention to detail which now defines my work. And Failure #2 taught me to take personal responsibility for my projects. To this day, I go straight to the source for important directions (and I don’t blame others if I take part in a group mistake).

I am a far better person for having professors that cared enough to fail me.

When your mistakes get noticed, how do you react? Do you argue your innocence or acknowledge your oversight and determine to learn from it next time? Do you care more about your reputation or the quality of your work product? Are you ready and willing to accept professional criticism without taking it personally? Really?

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