“I won’t make that mistake again”

Magnus’ first employee suffered from a lack of foresight. She was unable to think through to completion the results of certain actions. She certainly had many positive traits, but this was not one of them. I do not know how many times we heard her say, “well, I won’t make that mistake again.” While it is important to learn from mistakes, it is also very important to try to think ahead to avoid them in the first place. After hearing this comment many times we finally sat down with her to discuss it and point out that it was important to think through actions. And, part of the problem was that she was doing many things she had not done, so she had much to learn. Perhaps it was also the case that she did not understand the impression she was creating with this comment, that is, she was someone who was very often wrong, even if she gave it her best effort. I’m not sure everyone can be expected to do things right the first time, but if one realizes that they are saying something like this with any frequency, one should learn to ask for help, rather than make mistakes. So, that was the other point we learned, and she learned, us ask before doing something that you don’t know how to do. The risks of making a serious mistake increase exponentially by not knowing that you don’t know something. Guessing is not good enough for many endeavors. In our world of high stakes litigation, working for highly demanding, intelligent lawyers/clients, it is important to get it right the first time. In the end, our first employee became our first former employee and we moved on, but we have commented many times over the years about this mindset of having to make a mistake in order to learn the right way to do something. That is not a good indicator of success.

There is nothing inherently wrong with learning from one’s mistakes, but there are unavoidable costs associated with making these mistakes. Some of the costs are related to lost time, from expending efforts that are largely unproductive, while other costs are monetary. As small business owners, David and I often bear the brunt of our employees’ mistakes, in terms of both time and money. Our first employee, while well intended, lacked both inductive and deductive reasoning abilities, such that it was difficult for her to employ “if…then” logic in novel situations. Encountering the many novel situations involved in our work environment created considerable confusion for this person in how to perform tasks assigned to her. Furthermore, instead of asking for help and/or researching similar situations on her own, this employee engaged in a tailspin of activity, mostly erroneous, in an attempt to justify the long hours spent in accomplishing nothing. The “but I tried so hard” excuse is merely an excuse; it does nothing to accomplish the goal of performing the correct action. There is a well known social psychological principle, within attribution theory, that explains the causes of success and failure: ability, effort, difficulty, and luck. According to this model of goal achievement, success in difficult tasks (such as work assignments) requires both the expenditure of effort and some degree of ability; without both of these components, the goal cannot be achieved. Magnus’ first employee, although expending considerable effort, was unable to complete work assignments accurately because of an absence of ability, thereby resulting in mistake after mistake. Cognitive styles vary among people and the ability to foresee that, “If I do X, Y will result” is a dimension of logical reasoning and intelligence that some people lack. We all make mistakes, but avoiding them, when possible, is preferable to not thinking things through to their logical conclusion.

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