Mistakes are Cool

Stacy Brice and Steve Nelson added magnificently to my recent writings here, and on Lifehack.org, in regard to my Rules of Engagement, and I must thank them for the prompting. Without better context, my claim in the Workplace Order post that “mistakes are cool” can seem so incongruent to the rest of the rules, and I should explain, for sincerely, I want you to think of mistakes as cool too.

Luckily, early in my management career I had a brilliant mentor who would repeatedly tell us fledgling managers that if we weren’t making mistakes, we probably weren’t stretching enough, learning enough, or embracing the “catalytic converter action sequences” that “mistakes help us get comfortable with.” Most of us can see the connection between mistakes and potential learning pretty clearly, however my mentor’s most important lesson for us was with the connection between mistakes, empowerment, and building trust within an organization.

Therefore, it has come to be that there are three different, yet interconnected parts to my MWA philosophy on mistakes:

1. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Learning is necessary for the ongoing adapt-ability of your business and thrive-ability of those associated with it. Therefore, mistakes are more than okay and more than cool, they are necessary, and they should be encouraged.

2. When you have created a safe environment in which first-time mistakes are welcomed as the germinating seeds they are, and they do happen frequently as part of the evolutionary process, you are simultaneously building an atmosphere of trust and trustworthiness.

3. The “Mistakes are Cool” philosophy fuels new communication. When mistakes are cool in an organization, and they are talked about openly, there are marvelous added benefits which previously may have proved to be elusive.

Let’s talk about these one by one. We’ll do so over the next few days, for when I wrote this up it got pretty looooooooooong. Meanwhile, do feel free to chip in on the conversation and share your own personal philosophy or lessons learned on meandering through life’s wonderful mistakes.

I also recall that Christopher Bailey of our Ho‘ohana Online Community had written a thoughtful article on mistakes on his blog, generating some terrific conversation there. It was called Make a Mistake, and you may want to visit the Alchemy for Soulful Work to read it.

If you have a copy of Managing with Aloha, you’ll find a section called Mistakes are Cool on page 154 in the chapter on Ha‘aha‘a, the value of humility. In that section I explain how six other Hawaiian values factor into how wonderfully mistakes can test all our options, teaching us to be cautious but unafraid, and stimulating experimentation and exploration. The chapter begins like this:

Ha‘aha‘a can also help you enormously when it comes to creating a safe atmosphere in which your employees are not afraid of making mistakes with new challenges. They understand that mistakes happen on every journey. When you think about it, mistakes are wonderful things. Mistakes uncover variables that may otherwise be missed. Mistakes can point you toward investigations of probable solutions that are complete and comprehensive. Mistakes test all the options.

The other six values are ‘Imi ola (seeking new life), Ho‘ohana (working with purpose), Kākou (togetherness and inclusiveness), Lōkahi (cooperation and collaboration), Kuleana (responsibility), and Ho‘omau (persistence and perseverance), and I’ll bet you can think of all the connections on your own if you give it some thought.

You know, everything is impossible until the first person does it. Mistakes point us to better and best. Mistakes are definitely very cool.


  1. says

    This is a wise and timely article. There’s one other thing mistakes need: time. Time to understand what went wrong and learn from it. Too much speed is the enemy of learning.
    When people are harrassed, by others or by their own mistaken values, and try to do everything quickly, there’s no time to take a risk or make a mistake. The result is a generation of managers who take the “safe option” because there isn’t space in their schedule to try new ways. Getting it done is all they have time for.
    So long as we don’t allow enough time to do a job correctly, the result will be mediocrity and an over-reliance on conventional “answers.” That’s why I launched http://www.slowleadership.org — to start a conversation on allowing ourselves time to be good leaders.

  2. says

    Mahalo nui for the link to your article John.
    I now remember reading it back when you first posted it, but I had focused on the ToastMasters discussion versus the connection to mistakes, so it was good just now to read it again.
    I also liked that quote you included from Steve Pavlina, good words: what’s so terrible about being wrong? … you have the right to be wrong!