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The Four Types of Mistakes

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We all screw up. But when it comes to cataloging our failures, we don’t often think about classifying them into different buckets. It turns out there are four types of mistakes, and each is essential in its own way.

The idea comes from Eduardo Briceño, whose post Mistakes Are Not All Created Equal explains the concept. He lists the categories as follows:

  • A-Ha Moment Mistakes
  • Stretch Mistakes
  • Sloppy Mistakes
  • High-Stakes Mistakes

Where does Briceño come up with this? He plots failures on a grid of learning opportunity vs. intentionality. And if you think about it, this is exactly why mistakes are crucial.

Broken Lightbulb

© Flickr user Kevin Galens

All Mistakes Are Learning Opportunities

It’s true that I wrote an entire book about the importance of failure, but it’s worth mentioning that every time you screw up you have the capacity to learn something new.

The difference is that some errors represent bigger learning opportunities than others. That might be because the stakes are higher, but often it’s because the consequences are greater.

Some Mistakes Are Not Totally Unexpected

There’s a big difference between cutting yourself when shaving and cutting yourself on window glass when escaping a burning building. In both cases the physical harm is unfortunate. But in the case of saving your own life, the pain is a small price to pay.

Briceño makes a distinction between “low” and “high” intentionality because sometimes we are taking a bold action that we know may turn out poorly. When combined with “high” and even “higher” opportunities for learning, we have all four quadrants in the mistake matrix.

Eureka Moments: Higher Learning Opportunity, Low Intentionality

The writer Isaac Asimov is quoted as saying “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’.” The same is true with our own work. We may not be planning something that we consider has high risks, but if we’re paying attention we can learn a great deal. These aha-moment mistakes can be huge.

What should we do when this happens? Briceño notes:

We can gain more aha moments from mistakes by being reflective. We can ask ourselves What was unexpected? Why did that result occur? What went well and what didn’t? Is there anything I could try differently next time? We can also ask people around us for information we may not be aware of, or for ideas for improvement.

Bold Failures: Higher Learning Opportunity, High Intentionality

There are times that we try something “so crazy, it just might work.” These are stretch mistakes. Often we hear about these when they are not failures. If Dick Fosbury had not set an Olympic record, his technique would have been a joke. If that trip to Vegas didn’t end up saving the company, FedEx would be a historical footnote at best.

This category of error is about trying your hardest and learning as much as you can from it.

Carelessness: High Learning Opportunity, Low Intentionality

These mistakes are the most common and usually seen as broadly negative. Whenever we rush, choose not to pay attention, or fail to double check our work, we run the risk of a careless error. Such sloppy mistakes can have huge consequences, or be totally forgotten.

In addition:

When we make too many of these mistakes, especially on a task that we intend to focus on at the time, it signals an opportunity to enhance our focus, processes, environment, or habits.

Good advice for all of us, since we are all human.

Flare-outs: High Learning Opportunity, High Intentionality

One last category of mistake are the situations when everything is on the line, but there’s not much to be done except celebrate or mourn the outcome. This is the team that’s been training for the big game, or the pilot trying to land the plane during a hurricane. These failures are not acceptable, but they happen. We do everything in our power to try and prevent them. And when they do occur, the postmortem won’t probably tell us all that much.

It is important to remember this class of errors because everything in life involves some risk. We attempt to mitigate the chances something could go wrong through training, procedures, and processes, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes failure just happens.

Child Losing at Board Game

© Flickr user Andrea Allen

Mistakes are essential to growth and inescapable in life. Pay attention to the types of errors you experience. Did you intend to do something bold, or was it by accident? And is this something where you can learn a little, or a lot?

Get out there and screw up once in a while. You will anyway. You might as well have a mindset that helps you when you do.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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