Mistakes are pathways to learning


In my most recent post of a couple weeks ago I shared my views on the value of job candidates asking powerful questions during interviews to help them assess their own thoughts towards the relationships on which they would potentially embark.  As a follow-up to that, I want to share something that has been on my mind considerably and was substantiated recently while listening to “That Used To Be US[i]” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum.

We are living in (and arguably have been living in) an era where the mindset that stewarded the past few generations through their careers and lives is no longer sufficient – and is in many cases damaging – to professional growth and prosperity.  As it relates to the topic of my last post,  Powerful Interviewee Questions, I am moved by comments by Messrs. Friedman and Mandelbaum that suggest declaring our life learnings through mistakes can be – and will increasingly become more so – a very powerful strategy when it comes to employment seeking in world that demands collaboration and innovation.  The authors assert – and I could not agree more – that the craft of developing new professional relationships will be weakened by presenting oneself as having nothing but success in every challenge one has faced.  Selling yourself as being near perfect might have at a time been a wise tactical approach (though it never did sit right with me).  Today, and in the coming decades, the successful candidate will be the one who can speak very positively about the powerful lessons they have learned from the intelligent[ii] mistakes they have made.

In my last post, I shared that I would be less inclined to hire a candidate who “…did not demonstrate the interest and self-confidence to learn more about me and my working and management style.”  Likewise, if a candidate were to try to impress me by pointing only to their successes, I would be left wondering where their true-life lessons came from or are they even aware of them?

When and where I find myself in the other position (i.e. when being interviewed) I feel very uncomfortable sugar coating every experience as if I single handedly was the leading factor in my successes.  First, the environment and circumstances were critical factors and little of which I can claim sole credit.  Second, and more importantly,  of course I have made mistakes in my career – and will continue to do so in the future (it’s the only solid evidence I have that I am human).  And at each turn I am committed to assessing the situation as objectively as possible with input from others.  The two questions I seek to answer are, “What was my mistake?” and “What did I learn?”

Exploring the answers to these two questions, I believe, makes a person much stronger going forward.  Should I find myself in a conversation exploring future opportunities and my approach is viewed as negative or at least underselling myself, then it is best we not engage.  I value what I have learned and continue to learn through the mistakes I make.  And one of my most significant learnings of the recent past has taught me that for a new career to have any chance of success, there absolutely must be a reasonable degree of commonality in value systems between the employee and the company.

As a closing remark, I shall opine on what I feel is appropriate conversation for conducting interviews.  I suggest we engage candidates to share their learnings from life’s missteps.  We all have them and denying this is simply silly.  Let start with the ripe opportunity of the interview for a candidate to know that your organization is serious about innovation and collaboration which are nurtured in part by intelligent mistakes.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

Thank you for reading, have a Great Day!

Matt G.


[i] I highly recommend this book to anyone who looks at the plight of our society today and like the authors, sees a massive elephant in the room.

[ii] The term intelligent mistake is oft used to characterize mistakes made with the best intent and the best information and/or resources available at the time – including one’s own limitations. Intelligent mistakes do not include those resulting from recklessness, negligence or other actions taken in the absence of careful thought and consideration.

About Matt Gorman

Life-long learner. Collaboration enthusiast. Avid cyclist.
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