Ask Deborah: What’s the Biggest Mistake You’ve Made—And What Did You Learn?

December 1, 2014Ever notice how happy most people are to describe their accomplishments—and how much less eager they are to talk about their mistakes? Catalyst research shows humility is a key trait of inclusive leadership. This month in Ask Deborah, a column we created to help readers get to know our President and CEO, Deborah Gillis, we asked Deborah to describe the biggest mistake she’s made in her career. (Click here to read the first column in the series!)

If you have questions for Deborah, please send them to [email protected]—your question could be featured on our blog!

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made? What did you learn from it?

I have to pick just one? The truth is, I make mistakes all the time. We all do. One thing I’ve learned is that mistakes are often less important than how you handle them. When you’re beating yourself up over something that went wrong, try to remember that a year from now, people will recall whether you took responsibility for it, did what you could to fix it, and figured how to keep it from happening again—not the mistake itself. As our research shows, exhibiting humility in the face of a mistake is much more powerful than panicking, losing your temper, or blaming it on someone else.

I’ve made (and learned from) a number of mistakes in the course of my own career. Below is some hard-won advice I hope will help guide you as you navigate yours. 

  • Raise your hand—and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Earlier in my career, there were times when I could have put myself forward for big opportunities, but didn’t. Instead, I felt frustrated and resentful. If you want something, ask for it. If you need help, get it. People find it flattering to be asked for advice. And your boss won’t magically know what you want—you have to tell him or her.

  • Do your homework. One mistake I made was underestimating how difficult it would be to start over again in a new field. At times I was so eager to leave one thing behind that I leaped straight to the next without adequately investigating or preparing for it. That’s one way to end up with a job you hate. If something isn’t working, think about finding a job that’s a better fit—don’t just blindly run away from your current position. Take some time to grow a network and get to know a company’s unwritten rules before you commit to working there.  

  • Trust your gut. At the end of the day, you’re only answerable to yourself, so it’s crucial to pay attention to how you feel. Looking back, there have been times when something didn’t feel quite right, but I let myself be persuaded otherwise. Those are the decisions I’ve come to regret.  If you turn out to be wrong, you’ll have to own up to it (see above!)—but if you’re right, you’ll be sorry you second-guessed yourself.    

Nobody gets through an entire career without messing up at least once. What matters most is how you handle it when it happens.  

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