Mistakes are really stuck moments waiting to get unstuck. We fail, we learn, we do better. Sometimes, a lot better. Such is the case with the 25 successful women profiled in Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting it Wrong, edited by Jessica Bacal, Penguin, 2014.
We’ve culled five of the stories that offer some of the best advice for all of us, and categorized them by type of stuck moment for extra clarity. Experience is the best teacher — even if it isn’t yours.
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Rachel’s mistake: Rachel is used to being the best, and has a shelf of trophies and awards — plus an acceptance letter to Yale Law — to prove it. When she wins a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to study political theory at Oxford for two years, she’s determined to be the best at that too. But she hates her program, and feels defeated for the first time in her life.
How Rachel gets unstuck: Rachel realizes that she’s been so busy winning that she’s ignored thinking about what makes her happy. She drops out of Oxford and starts work on a nonfiction book about bullied girls. She never goes to law school; instead, her book becomes a beloved bestseller, and she begins a fulfilling career helping young women build confidence and self-awareness.
What Rachel learned: “Listen to your ‘internal voice,’ that voice inside your head that tells you when you feel tired or thirsty, whether you should leave that party, if you should buy that cool shirt. When you think about the path you’re on right now, what does the voice say? A full-throated passionate yes? A maybe? Or an I-hate-this-but-it’s-what-I-have-to-do? You can plug your ears for a while, but eventually, that voice grows louder, more ominous, and harder to ignore. Listen to it now before you get in too deep.”
Danielle’s mistake: When Danielle is in charge for the first time as a second-year medical resident, she faces a life-or-death decision for a patient. She shoots down her intern’s advice, and makes the wrong call. The patient almost goes into cardiac arrest.
How Danielle gets unstuck: Danielle is stricken with shame for her error, but realizes that she has to put her humiliation aside for the sake of her patient. And she discovers that, no matter who is in charge, you can ask colleagues for their opinions.
What Danielle learned: “You don’t have to feel the burden of ‘I must be 110 percent right on my first try, and I may not utter any evidence of hesitancy.’ Even the president of the company can turn to a trusted colleague and say, ‘What do you think? Here’s my idea. Give me some feedback.’”
Luma’s mistake: Luma graduates from college without a sense of what she wants to do. As a result, she feels alienated from friends and family, and moves around a lot, working in restaurants and volunteering as a girls’ soccer coach at the YMCA.
How Luma gets unstuck: One day, Luma sees some kids playing pickup soccer and stops to kick the ball with them. She discovers that they’re refugees from war-torn countries — and getting to know their stories ignites a passion in her. She begins to tutor them after school. Later, she founds the first accredited school for refugees in the US. This becomes her life’s work.
What Luma learned: “When you get the alumni quarterly and you read about your friends who are PhDs or MacArthur fellows or Rhodes scholars, drink a shot for each one and keep a good sense of humor. Life is about doing what you love.”
Cheryl’s mistake: Cheryl knows she wants to write but can’t see how to make it work and still pay her bills. She gets increasingly demoralized working as a waitress while her real dream remains a pie in the sky.
How Cheryl gets unstuck: She takes a job as a youth advocate for at-risk girls in a middle school, and this experience injects fresh perspective. She loves contributing to others’ lives — and realizes she can do this through her writing. She applies to an MFA program, quits her job, and moves across the country to attend school. A decade later, she writes the bestselling memoir Wild.
What Cheryl learned: “We’re all rough drafts. If you’re living right, you’re constantly striving to make the next version of yourself one notch better. Real success is rooted in learning how to turn mistakes into successes; losses into gains; failures into the things of value that propel you forward rather than hold you back. My advice is to be humble, to listen to those who have more experience than you do, to work hard — actually hard — and also to trust yourself. No one makes your life for you. You make it yourself.”
Reshma’s mistake: During her 2009 run for Congress, Reshma sinks all of her hopes and savings into her campaign. When she receives only 19 percent of the vote, she’s devastated. It feels like a huge public failure. And she doesn’t have a plan B.
How Reshma gets unstuck: Reshma gives herself permission to feel upset about her failure for two weeks, then analyzes what went wrong. Talking to people and reflecting on how she ran the campaign allows her to see her missteps and learn from them. She goes on to take a job as a public advocate for New York City, and later starts the nonprofit Girls Who Code.
What Reshma learned: “When you have major setbacks, you ironically begin to feel like you can do anything because the worst has already happened and you’re no longer paralyzed by the fear of something not working out. If I hadn’t run for office, I would never be where I am now, the founder of a successful nonprofit. That’s why I tell young people to fail fast, fail hard, and fail often.”