How The Smartest People Convert Mistakes Into Opportunities

Well, the mistakes were as unique as you are!

“These are my biggest mistakes: “Starting a company with a short-term business model and small margins. Starting a company that’s not scalable. “Hiring my first employee when I didn’t need one. “Waiting to start a PR campaign until we had negative press.”

But the learning was consistent across the board.

People who succeed at work and in life treat everything they encounter–even if it is what you and I would call a mistake or a problem–as an opportunity.

Are they cockeyed optimists? Hardly. They say they have three good reasons for thinking this way.

First, you were going to find out eventually what people did and did not like about your idea. Better to learn it as soon as possible, before you sink more resources into the idea, venture or product line, etc. You always want to keep potential loses to a minimum.

Second, the market reaction could take you in another direction, or serve as a barrier to your competitors. You thought you wanted to start a social web site geared to kids, but a quick survey told you potential customers thought the field was saturated. However, more than a few of them said they would pay good money for a web site that would help their children with their homework.

Third, you got evidence. True, it was not what you were expecting or even wanted, but that still puts you ahead of the person who is just thinking about doing something (like opening another web site for kids.) You know something they don’t, and that is an asset. You are ahead of the game.

The thing to remember is this: Successful people work with what they have at hand— whatever comes along—and try to use everything at their disposal to achieve their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon, as Mark Strauss said in his comment.

“I made one of my biggest mistakes very early on when I was still in school, working at Radio Shack. It was a mistake that made a big impression on me and one I have chosen to repeat—yes, repeat—throughout my career and my life.A woman in her, I’m guessing, sixties entered the store with what appeared to be old flashlight. I approached her, offered my name and asked if I could help her.She told me her flashlight was no longer working and that she needed a new one. I told her we had a variety of flashlights for sale and that I would be delighted to show them to her. As I directed her across the store, I asked if I could see her old flashlight.Upon opening her flashlight, the problem was easy to identify. Corrosion had fouled the battery contacts. I asked her to wait a moment as I scraped the contacts clean with a letter opener.

“I replaced the batteries and screwed the flashlight back together. Lo and behold, the flashlight now worked perfectly. I explained what I had done and returned the old, now-working flashing to the woman. She was elated… and I felt pretty good too.

“After what seemed like an embarrassing number of “thank yous,” the woman left the store with her working flashlight in hand.

“Proudly I turned, only to immediately be approached by my, visibly upset, manager. Quite firmly, she explained that we were in business to sell flashlights… not fix them. She continued, that had I not fixed the flashlight, the woman would not only have purchased a new flashlight, but most probably batteries as well. Finally, the manager reminded me that, as a result of my actions, a sale was “lost.”

“Her comments made a big impression on me—particularly juxtaposed so closely with the delight experienced just minutes before.Today, decades after I fixed that flashlight, I hold that lesson very dear. However, I don’t think that store manager would endorse my interpretation. Since that summer, I have fixed many “flashlights.” Looking back, not one of them EVER failed to ultimately generate returns far in excess of the costs of the “parts.”