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.”
Next week: How to work like a human
Last week: Unstuck Hero: Because everyone deserves to live with dignity
His stuck moment: Having lived in Bedford Falls all his life, George gives up his travel dreams to run his father’s business and loan. One Christmas Eve, his uncle loses a large deposit, prompting the town’s slumlord, Mr. Potter, to issue a warrant for George’s arrest. Feeling he’s worth more dead than alive, George jumps off a bridge.
He strays from the usual: Clarence, George’s guardian angel, rescues George to show him what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never lived. Called Pottersville, the town is home to squalor and bitterness, with every friend and relative suffering personal unhappiness.
Unstuck result: By seeing his town from a different perspective, George realizes what a difference he has made and begs Clarence to let him live. His wish is granted.
Getting stuck as a Tunnel Visionary can be trickier to recognize and solve than other kinds of stuck moments.
We think we have all the information, yet we don’t feel fully informed. We puzzle through what we know again and again, but can’t find a satisfying solution. Deep down, we long for the missing link, that tidbit that will instantly make the pieces click together — yet our gaze never strays from what’s already in our line of sight.
Yes, indeed, we’re hemmed in.
And we aren’t the only ones. Oprah Winfrey, Milton Glaser, Rachael Ray, and other famous folk were each famously stuck operating within the limits of what was. But when they shifted their perspective to what could be, great things happened.
There are at least three different ways Tunnel Visionaries burrow into their stuck moments (take our mini-quiz to discover your tendency). Once you understand your approach, it’s a matter of widening your view with the right tactic.
We put together a tip sheet of Eye-Opener exercises for all three types of Tunnel Visionaries. Which sounds most familiar to you?
The Guarded Visionary. When we feel stuck, we stick to the safety zone. We can clearly articulate the problems, but are hesitant to put forth solutions. That way, we won’t look foolish. We need to get a little vulnerable so we can open up to new possibilities.
The Determined Visionary. We don’t let much get in our way, even when we’re stuck. So we push forward no matter what, trying to steamroll the nagging fear that we won’t succeed. We need to relax and unlock our brains to absorb new perspectives.
The Influenced Visionary. A prevailing point of view is drowning out other possibilities in our head. And our lukewarm feelings on the topic aren’t exactly driving us to explore other ideas. We need to listen to our gut instinct to find a fresh voice to help balance our thinking.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Eye-Openers — how to see possibilities, not just limitations
We are the problem-solver, the fixer, the emotional handyman of our tribe. The world runs more smoothly and smartly because we’re in it.
Keen understanding is the secret to our prowess — looking at all the information and knowing what to do with it. But, on rare occasion, a few pieces of the puzzle are missing, and then we’re stuck. It’s an unfamiliar sensation. We don’t have much practice at this stuck thing, so we feel like we’re stumbling in the twilight, unable to see what we need to make sense of it all.
In this half-blind moment, we’re acting like a Tunnel Visionary, operating without enough information to give us wider perspective.
How do we open our aperture? First, we need to understand the current mindset that we can’t seem to shake. Are we guarded? Fiercely determined? Unduly influenced?
Take our mini-quiz to find out.
Tunnel Visionary mini-quiz
First, think of a time when you were stuck because the information you had didn’t add up. No matter how hard you tried to piece together a solution, you came up empty. Then quickly answer the following three questions:
What did you Feel when you were uninformed?
What did you Think when you were uninformed?
A. This isn’t going to be pretty.
B. I will not give up.
C. When did things get so bad?
What did you do when you were uninformed?
A. Tell people to lower their expectations.
B. Push forward (and secretly hope for the best).
C. Wish there was another side to the story.
If you chose mostly A answers, read about Guarded Visionaries, below. Mostly B’s, you’re likely a Determined Visionary. C’s are Influenced Visionaries. If you had a mix of letters, you’re a hybrid, which means you’ll find parts of yourself in all three types.
A. Guarded Visionary. You’ve been to enough rodeos that you aren’t easily thrown. So when you’re feeling off-kilter, your first instinct is to head to a safe zone. In your case, it’s spotting what’s wrong with the situation. You focus on the flaws to the point where you can’t imagine a more positive outcome. And by your calculations, that’s the better bet. Most likely, you reckon, you won’t end up looking foolish.
You need to get uncomfortable. The antidote to your single-minded repose is to practice vulnerability. Yes, it’s a state of being that most humans actively avoid. But it’s also the best mind-set for taking chances and seeing things differently.
B. Determined Visionary. If life were a race, you’d win. Your grit and confidence propel you forward, and you’re not going to let some stinking stuck moment slow you down. But underneath all that momentum is a tiny bit of desperation that your plan won’t work — or you won’t be first to the finish line. That only makes you push harder. At times like these, patience and other viewpoints go out the window.
You need to get comfortable. A frantic state of mind takes a lot of energy, but rarely gets us anywhere. Relax. Sink into a big, soft easy chair and release the steel trap that’s holding your brain hostage.
C. Influenced Visionary. It’s unusual for you to see just one side of the story but, on occasion, a prevailing point of view drowns out the alternatives. The media is a common culprit, but you could just as easily be swayed by a trusted friend. Loyalty, too, whether to a person or process or even an object, can loom large. And it doesn’t help that your own feelings on the subject are lukewarm, making the status quo all the more appealing.
You need to summon your instincts. In short, trust yourself. Just below the surface are all kinds of provocative thoughts swimming around, ready to be recognized. Tap into them.
Key to any stuck moment is to understand where our gap is. As a Tunnel Visionary, it’s a seeing gap: The harder we focus on the situation, the narrower our range of possibilities become. And knowing this can be a relief. There are simple ways to broaden our perspective. We’ll spell them out next week.
PRINTABLE TIP CARD #24: What kind of Tunnel Visionary are you?
It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like everyone else is having the luck. We trudge to and fro work and home, reminding ourselves along the way that we paid too much for our car, or we haven’t gotten a raise in three years, or the good ones are all taken. Why not me? we ask woefully. Because…we aren’t looking for the possibilities. Our perspective is limited and gone kind of stale. We need to see the world differently. But how? Here are 9 ways to freshen up your outlook.