Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How To Bounce Back From A Big Mistake

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery,” James Joyce once said. It may be hard to remember this if you were the guy who incorrectly rerouted some network traffic on Amazon’s Web Services environment, causing the outage that took down the whole network for nearly 24 hours earlier this year.

While your mistakes probably won’t disable thousands of websites, it is in your best interest to limit the damage from a mistake and, most importantly, learn all you can from it.

Here are a few tips on how to effectively bounce back — and grow stronger — when you make a bad call:

1. Own your mistake.

It’s too bad if circumstances were against you, or somebody you counted on failed you, or you just had a bad day. According to Justin Menkes’ wonderful book Better Under Pressure, truly great leaders don’t blame others when things go wrong. They instead have a high “sense of agency,” which is “the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.”

2. Fix it if you can, and tell your leader.

Don’t be a “quiet fixer.” Mistakes often have side effects, and pretending that it didn’t happen is dangerous. In this Harvard Business Review interview, former Toyota chairman Katsuaki Watanabe stated, “Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually. If problems are revealed for everyone to see, I will feel reassured. Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn’t notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.”

3. Apologize to anyone affected.

Make it a real apology. (“I’m sorry I caused your group all that downtime”), not something lame and self-protective (“I wish it hadn’t happened”). For an example of how NOT to do it, see this video from the Financial Times of former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis “apologizing” for mistakes made during the financial crisis.

4. Reflect on the mistake.

Think about what caused it, and what you did that contributed to the situation. You can’t learn anything from external factors, so forget about them (see #1: you are building a high sense of agency). What can you do differently? This may be easier to do when some time has passed, especially if the mistake and its aftermath were particularly painful or embarrassing. Consider former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Widely vilified for his role in the Vietnam War, it took him 30 years before he wrote a memoir, In Retrospect, in which he finally came to terms with the consequences of his decisions.

5. Address the root cause.

If you systematically reflect on mistakes, you will realize there are patterns in your performance that contribute to these errors. And once you realize that, you are well on the way to fixing that pattern. For example, after missing two customer calls in a brief time, I concluded that I needed to overhaul my organizational system. I spent time over the next several months reading and implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, which made it much easier to juggle many customers at once.

6. Share what you learned.

In some environments, this sharing can be a lifesaver.  In her research on learning in hospitals, Amy Edmondson of Harvard University discovered that the highest-performing nursing units had reported the largest number of mistakes. Not because they made more mistakes, but because they felt safe to report and share the ones they did make.


Adopting these practices may not make mistakes any less embarrassing, but it will help prevent disasters and ensure that you don’t make the same mistake twice. And won’t that allow you to sleep a little easier?

What’s Your Take?

Do you have any best practices for recovering from mistakes?

More insights on: Failure, Risk-Taking

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
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