Pyburn for Ogunte
Learning from your mistakes is nothing new. People have been doing it for a very long time. What is revolutionary is owning your mistakes, and pressing into what makes them uncomfortable at the time to learn about yourself and grow.
Of course, everything is clear in hindsight: you can look back and chart your path, signposted by significant decisions, encounters and, yes, mistakes.
But it’s somewhat less easy to cultivate the self-awareness needed to recognise when you’re in one of those ‘tough patches’ that you will eventually look back on, and to lean into them instead of cringing away.
Some of our most important learning experiences will likely involve some discomfort, awkwardness and feeling out of our depth. So, when we are feeling backed into a corner, ill at ease, how do we embrace the feeling and see it through (so as to arrive at the better-for-it, lesson-learnt stage)?
Reading the work of Dr Brené Brown about the importance of vulnerability and understanding shame, a key learning is that we can pick up on our own emotional cues that indicate we are experiencing something that needs some attention. Dismantling the power of shame could be what distinguishes an embarrassing mistake from a valuable learning experience.
Hearing about the struggles of people we admire can be a great way to remind ourselves that it is okay to mess up, even as we are in the middle of our struggle. When we can’t see how our journey will pan out, we can choose to look up and take note.
Kresse Wesling, founder of Elvis
& Kresse - a luxury
accessory brand which rescues materials full of character and charm
from landfill, and donates 50% of its profits to
charities and projects related to the materials - says:
“[If I could travel back in time] I would tell myself that it was going to work out - that it would be insanely hard, but that it would work. I wouldn’t be specific about anything though, no warnings, no highlights - it is our failures and our successes that have brought us here.”
Hyasintha Ntuyeko, founder of Kasole Secrets - an organic sanitary towel business that campaigns for safe menstruation for all women and girls in Tanzania- says: “What kept me going was my passion for the agenda, and a willingness to learn from mistakes and failures.”
Karen Mattison, co-founder of TimeWise – the UK’s first flexible jobs marketplace: [the best leaders have] the wisdom to know that we all learn from making mistakes, and to encourage their teams to understand that it’s better to try and fail than to always play it safe.
Note that these entrepreneurs actually credit their mistakes for making their success possible. They were able to achieve because of their mistakes, not in spite of them.
When you’re in the midst of a tough time try to visualise your fabulous future self and the gratitude you will feel about that particular challenging experience. Let this motivate you to lean into the discomfort and squeeze every drop of learning you can out of it!
When asked about the lessons she has learned, Sasha began to list her mistakes and how they caused her to realise important truths. She said:
“Learning number one: Volunteerism, or the willingness of people to volunteer their time, does not correlate with need.
To explain this, when we started out we built public toilets for communities. People were incredibly enthusiastic and engaged in the process, and we’d work with them to build a management plan for the toilet. There was no doubt that the need and the desire to have this service was there. But we found that in almost every case, after 6 months to a year, the management of the toilet went downhill.
This was a valuable lesson, though I feel quite naive for not having known this earlier on. I think often development professionals have this idea that where the need is greatest, people will be most willing to volunteer their time to ensure that need is met. What I learnt was that – and it sounds so obvious saying it now – having space in your life to give up your time is something that comes from a place of great privilege.
When people are struggling just to survive, you can’t really ask them to volunteer to do anything, but certainly not clean up other people’s poop! Volunteerism is probably negatively correlated to the level of need: the more need people have, the less time they have to volunteer.”
For the few months when it became clear that the public toilet route was not going to work long-term, Sasha and her team found themselves in a critical moment: would they admit defeat and abandon their mission, or would they choose to press in and use this attempt to pivot in another direction?
Sasha made the right call. When asked to describe herself in five words, she chose to include ‘dedicated’ and ‘persistent’, qualifying ‘I know these are very similar, but I need to emphasise that this is the only way I can do this work.’ I’m betting Sasha’s sheer force of will to drive change in Haiti has enabled her to push through obstacles on countless occasions, and crucially is what allows her to see mistakes as learning opportunities and not as the end of the road.
Detaching ideas of shame and failure from making a mistake is essential. The entrepreneurs who can pick themselves up and learn from their mistakes understand that their self-worth does not hang in the balance over every decision or venture.
‘I have developed confidence over the years by trusting God absolutely, learning from past mistakes and taking on challenges that are bigger than me… and succeeding in many (not all)!’
Chinwe’s faith gives her hope that everything will work out in the end, and forms a solid base for her self-worth. Non-religious folk can achieve this through an equally strong support network of family, friends and significant colleagues, that will keep us grounded and secure in turbulent times.
Chinwe’s words reveal the killer combo behind her success: she is willing to tackle big, daunting challenges that seem beyond her reach, perhaps even ones where she is likely to fail, and then when she does make mistakes, she takes the lessons forward with her.
Her approach banishes shame because it embraces the mistakes as part of the journey. This confidence empowers Chinwe to stretch herself to attempt and achieve things she would never dream of. She has deliberately taken the sting out of failure, which in itself sets her up to succeed.
None of these women had a crystal ball that told them it was going to work out in the end. But they did it anyway, and trusted that when they messed up, they would have the tenacity to get back out there. They didn’t let setbacks (even big ones) stop them from taking more risks and pushing themselves to the limit again and again.
This is how we get where we want to go. This is why making mistakes and learning from them qualifies you as an entrepreneur. You are not not a success because you fall down. You are a success because, no matter how many times you fall down, you choose to get back on your feet.
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