This morning on the way to work I listened to an episode of The Indicator podcast called “When Oracles Err.” The gist was that successful people, those who we often assume are perfect, make mistakes — sometimes big ones — just like everyone else. One of the big differences though is that really successful folks learn from their mistakes.

One of the examples they mention in the podcast is Warren Buffett, the chairman and chief executive of one of the largest companies in the world and someone who is known as an almost faultless business wizard. But he’s made some mistakes and one of them was a real doozy. In 1993 Buffett purchased a shoe company with Berkshire Hathaway stock, totalling $430 million (Vanek Smith & Garcia, 2018). That sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but if he’d kept that stock, today it would be worth $6 billion. That’s like 5,570,000,000 mistakes. That’s a huge mistake.

Pause for a minute and consider all the people you’ve worked with that couldn’t admit mistakes. I’d wager six billion of Buffet’s dollars that you can think of a handful right away. Marcus Aurelius warned us to not give assent “to those who talk overmuch” (Aurelius, 1997). To his credit, instead of clinging to an idealized version of reality and claiming that he hadn’t made a mistake by using a lot of corporate buzzwords and doubletalk, Buffett admitted that he’d made a mistake, owning it. That made it possible for him to learn from the mistake — one which he hasn’t duplicated since.discussion-2822066_1920

Buffett demonstrated enough humility to acknowledge and learn from his mistake. Business is competitive and some think that humility is a sign of weakness. But they’re wrong: it takes more courage to admit a mistake than to cover it up or make justifications. And with the speed at which businesses must change to remain competitive, it’s no longer an option to be afraid of mistakes.

Those of us in the L&D world should embrace this idea as well. Not only do we make mistakes, but we should be happy and take advantage of situations when our audiences make mistakes. Recently a company in Utah invested a lot in their asynchronous learning solutions and purposefully made mistakes that are common to new users — just so they could use those as learning opportunities for content consumers. Helping users make and learn from mistakes in the learning environment means that in real-world situations they’ll more likely be able to perform at the required competency levels, instead of making mistakes on the job.

Aurelius, M. (1997). Meditations. (P. Negri, & W. Kaufman, Eds.) Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc.
Vanek Smith, S., & Garcia, C. (2018, July 26). When Oracles Fail. Retrieved from Planet Money: