Harvey Mackay

Flush Those Mistakes!

The Minnesota Vikings were playing the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 2020 NFL playoffs when wide receiver Adam Thielen made a crucial mistake on the team’s opening possession. He fumbled, and the Saints were able to kick a field goal off the turnover.

Shortly after his fumble, Thielen was caught making a motion with his hand like he was flushing a toilet. Turns out he was implementing a “mistake ritual” called "the flush.” Dr. Cindra Kamphoff, a mental performance coach, taught this drill to Thielen and his college teammates, and it has served him well. He went on to have a big day and made the crucial catch to set up the Vikings’ winning touchdown in overtime.

“One component of mental toughness is the ability to live and let go,” Kamphoff told ESPN. “We’ve got to learn and burn. You have to learn from the mistake quickly and then we have to burn it. We have to let it go. That’s the heart of it. The reason we want to do that is to remain in the present moment because the past play we can’t do anything about. We can’t change it. All we can do is reset for the next play.”

The majority of us aren’t judged by our mistakes on national TV. Pro athletes, entertainers, restaurant owners, college professors, politicians -- anyone who is out in the public eye has to live with scrutiny and negative reviews on social media, and hope for the best. A little mistake looks a lot bigger when it's broadcast all over the country. Maybe it’s not always fair, but it’s the world we live in.

As I like to say, failure is not fatal. My best advice: Acknowledge that even as good as you are at your job or life in general, you are not perfect. That is not, however, a reason not to keep trying for perfection.

Despite your best and most creative efforts, your innovative project has failed. Don’t despair. Jeffrey Baumgartner’s Innovation Excellence website recommends analyzing the failure by asking these questions:

What went right? Most mistakes have some redeeming qualities. Identify things that went well. Incorporate those small victories into your next project.

What went wrong? Look at where you tripped up. Make a list of the mistakes you made so you’re clear on the root causes of the failure.

Why did it go wrong? Maybe your process was flawed, or you had bad information or you made incorrect assumptions. Ask the people around you for their perceptions. When you know why things went wrong, you’ll be better able to avoid mistakes when you get back to work.

Are you repeating mistakes? Make sure you’re not making the same mistakes over and over again. Look at past failures to determine whether your process is flawed in some way. As Winston Churchill said, “If you simply take up the attitude of defending a mistake, there will be no hope of improvement.”

What can you salvage? Take a look at the end result and see if you can find something useful to recycle -- data, equipment, product components, whatever. Your project won’t be a complete loss if you can repurpose at least some of its elements.

Thomas J. Watson Sr., an early CEO of IBM who was fundamental in shaping the trajectory of the company, said of mistakes: “Double your rate of failure ... Failure is a teacher -- a harsh one, perhaps, but the best ... That’s what I have to do when an idea backfires or a sales program fails. You’ve got to put failure to work for you ... you can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because that’s where you will find success. On the far side of failure.”

Mackay’s Moral: Don’t let a misstep make you fall flat on your face.