Why a bad mistake at work can be good news

Donna Ferguson

It’s a moment in his 14-year career as a headteacher that Simon Kidwell will never forget. “The husband of a member of my staff was rushed to hospital – and she came in the next day, after being up most of night, panicking because she hadn’t done the marking for her class.” At the time, he expected all the teachers at his Cheshire primary school to mark their pupils’ work daily and give each child detailed feedback – a lengthy process which typically took around 2.5 hours a day, but had been praised by Ofsted.

The teacher’s panic made him realise he had made a mistake. “It was a wake-up call for me. I had a teacher more worried about her workload than her husband being in hospital.” Kidwell decided to reduce the marking workload of his teachers, cutting their working hours by around seven hours a week on average. “Staff retention rates are now very, very strong and our teachers have a healthier work-life balance.”

At the school’s most recent Ofsted inspection, the new marking system was praised and the school was rated “good”. Kidwell now lives by the philosophy that it’s also good to make mistakes. “That’s something we try to model to the children as well. Because mistakes help you to learn.”

They can also, of course, be very embarrassing and, often, distressing. Last week, a member of staff at Hawksmoor Manchester accidentally served diners a £4,500 bottle of wine, and pupils at a £37,000-a-year boarding school discovered they had been taught the wrong GCSE English textSpies, by Michael Frayn – for two years. It may be some time before their teacher and the waiter who mistook a bottle of 2001 Chateau Le Pin Pomerol for a £260 Bordeaux feel able to embrace Kidwell’s positive philosophy.

A huge blunder can be a life-changing experience. (Posed by a model.)

A huge blunder can be a life-changing experience. (Posed by a model.) Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty

But the sooner they stop licking their wounds and do so, the quicker they will recover, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester. “We know that resilient personalities are people who are more adaptable if they do something wrong. Their attitude is: what do I have to learn, so I don’t make that mistake again?”

Another resilient response is to publicly attempt to “own” the mistake and accept that you must try to compensate for it in some way. “A big mistake can be a life-changing experience in the sense that it so devastates you, you can’t just carry on doing what you were doing before. You can’t return to your previous life,” says Cooper. Rather than allow a screw-up to permanently affect their self-confidence and self-esteem, resilient people will often reposition their mistake in their own minds as the impetus for positive change, he says. “They’ll decide: I’m going to make that mistake part of who I am. To own a mistake in that way – in the way you live your life – is really profound.”

Lee Willows, 46, is chief executive of the Young Gamers & Gamblers Education Trust. He founded the charity nearly five years ago, after being convicted of stealing £19,000 from his employer to fund his secret gambling addiction. Before he confessed to his crime, he says, he was full of self-loathing. “I hated what I’d done, the person I became. The only way out I could see was to kill myself.”

Don’t be in denial about your mistakes. The faster you fess up, the faster you'll recover

Jonathan Aitken

Following counselling and treatment at a gambling addiction clinic, he began to feel more resilient. Setting up the charity to help others avoid making some of his mistakes has given him a new purpose in life. “I was a truthful person before I became a gambler. Now, I’ve re-established my moral compass.”

The process of rebuilding after a mistake requires support, ideally from a wise mentor or companion, says Jonathan Aitken. The former cabinet minister spent seven months in prison in 1999 for perjuring himself in a libel case against the Guardian. He is now 76, and a prison chaplain. “The first piece of advice I’d offer – and I did in the end take it myself, but rather too slowly – is don’t be in denial about your mistakes. The faster you fess up admit and say you’re sorry, the faster you will recover.”

There won’t always be a quick fix and you may need to thoroughly change the direction of your life and career, he warns. “But I don’t believe any mistake is so bad that everything is irrecoverable and ruined. No one falls below the reach of God’s grace.”

For 30-year-old former jockey Brian Toomey, a mistake he made during a race in 2013 almost cost him his life and left him with a head injury so severe he spent five months in hospital. He was told he would never be fit to ride again. He believes the fact that he didn’t berate himself about his error helped him to prove the doctors wrong.

“I made a split-second decision going 30mph on an animal that can’t talk. It was the wrong decision. But I’ve never given myself a hard time about my accident or doubted I could be just as good a jockey as I was before.” He recovered enough to complete 23 more rides before deciding to become a racehorse trainer. “I was very determined.”

Elizabeth Day, the podcaster and author of How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned from Things Going Wrong, believes it is possible to train your brain to change the way you perceive your mistakes. “We are all going to make mistakes. Once you accept that, you can look failure in the face and build up emotional resilience.”

Challenging your internal critic can enable you to separate your mistakes from your sense of self-worth. “Making mistakes doesn’t make you a rubbish person,” says Day. “It may be that a particular career is not for you. You may have some very important learnings to take away. But these are helpful conclusions that can come from making mistakes.”

Thing do not always go to plan – but that may lead to better outcomes in the long run, she points out. Besides, in her opinion, life is not just a pursuit of success and happiness. It’s also about weathering the storms as well as the calm seas. “I’ve made mistakes in my life. I’ve been divorced. I’ve tried and failed to have children. That causes me an enormous amount of sadness, but I choose to be at peace with that sadness – and to learn from it.”