Friday, June 01, 2007

Yet more mistakes

In 1984, my first job out of college, I worked for GTE Labs & at some point early in my tenure I screwed something up. It's funny, I can't even remember what I did to screw up--but I do remember the aftermath. I had a meeting with my boss's boss in his office.

I thought I would get chewed out but instead he congratulated me. For messing up. Nothing good can happen unless we try things, and not everything works out, he said. Then he handed me a book. He had a bunch of copies on his bottom shelf. "Read this. You can't have great successes without your share of mistakes."

"How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice" was the title. Sadly, it's out of print. (Google, when are you going to scan this one?) The author, Royal Little, was the founder of Textron, one of the largest conglomerates built during the mid-1900's. Chapter headings include "How to Lose Money on Personal Investments" and "Some of My Other Mistakes." Here is a passage from the introduction:

The personal histories of most businessmen are ego trips and of no real value to the business community.... On the other hand, when I am invited to speak to students or business groups I never talk about things that went well. The audience enjoys it much more when I tell about my mistakes.... I finally decided that by writing about my mistakes I might contribute something to our free enterprise system. Perhaps I can persuade others, both in school and business, to avoid the errors I have made. No businessman in the past has ever written such a book--possibly because no one else has compiled such an impressive record of mistakes.

In this thinking he joins advocates of teaching via worst practice such as Stephen Epstein and Dave Snowden. Little also shows that mistakes are best shared with a sense of humor (and humility).

Success stories and best practices make us feel good. But they're the political correctness of the business world. My old writing teacher said, "Good writing is mostly taught in the negative." And the same, I'm learning after twenty years, is true in business.

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