“You know nothing Jon Snow” – Ygritte, Wildling, Beyond the Wall (George RR Martin)
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I will continue to make them in the future. Although it’s very hard to accept at the time, the more mistakes I make, the better I become. No one is an expert, or even any good, after the first or even after several attempts at a new skill. Failure and mistakes are the way we learn and develop skills. This is particularly true of interpersonal business skills that require an improvisational approach such as leadership, sales or coaching conversations. “Learning from our mistakes” is a common concept that most of us believe in, but do we put it into action? Is it part of our corporate culture, L&D (Learning and Development) or Talent Development strategy? I’d say not very often. In fact, I’d say that most organizations have a very low tolerance for failure and mistakes and perhaps understandably so, considering that mistakes often cost money.
If you see a star in your organization that is a better salesperson or coach than you are, that means they have had the time and opportunity to fail more often than you have. The star salesperson held up as an example of how everyone on the team should be executing the sales process is the star because they have had more opportunities to fail. Put another way, the scope of your success is based on how many mistakes you’ve made, assuming of course that you’ve learned from your mistakes and don’t make the same ones again and again. If you believe that some people are just naturally gifted salespeople or leaders, think again. Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated (2008), and Andres Ericsson in Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016) both make a compelling argument through research that whether it’s sales, business, music, or athletics, individuals that work hard and practice far longer and more effectively than their peers are more successful. No one is born a great investment banker, coach, or salesperson – they’ve had the opportunity to survive the consequences of their failures and have taken advantage of them by learning and improving.
It’s clear that you need to make mistakes in order to learn but how many mistakes can a person afford to make on the job before they’re asked to move on? The answer, like the answer to most difficult questions, is that it depends. Continue reading