When did you last make a mistake?

The idea for this article came to me over a year ago. I bumped into someone at an awards ceremony whom I last saw in 2008 in rather unhappy circumstances. His business had been very badly hit by the sudden downturn in the housing market and he had severe cash flow problems. He wanted advice on what he could do to save his business but sadly it was too late for me to help him. Before I even had time to prepare my report and recommendations his bank called in his overdraft and he lost everything: his business, his job, his home and his personal assets. With some trepidation I asked him things had gone for him since. “Fantastic” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “With hindsight losing mu business was the best thing that ever happened to me”. I was intrigued and asked him to explain. “Well”, he said, “the reason that I lost my business was because I opened a second branch just before the downturn hit us. In retrospect I don’t know why I wanted to do that; my first branch was successful and profitable but it only had around 5% market share in a large town. What I should have done is to concentrate on winning more market share in the original office rather than opening a second one”.

After he lost his business he went back to stay with his parents for a few months and rebuilt his old letting business from their spare bedroom. Six years later he has a business that makes nearly four times the profit of the one he lost. I was so intrigued by this story that I made a point of contacting some other people who had lost their businesses in the downturn and I was surprised to find that more than half of them have since started new businesses most of which are more successful than their original ones. What was even more intriguing was how few of the remaining people regret what happened to them. One said that with hindsight he has realised that he was a great estate agent but a rotten businessman. He is now working as a branch manager for a large regional chain earning a higher salary than he had from his old business “without any hassle”.

Several people that I spoke to have had a complete career change. One has retrained as a teacher, one has started a recruitment agency and one has gone to work in his families’ furniture business. Even some of the people who have not regained their financial position seem remarkably philosophical about their experience, one who has gone from 8 branches to 1 branch said “I used to think I was infallible; the failure of my business taught me some humility”. Approximately 50% of my sample have built another business and 30% have come to terms with what happened to them. But what about the remaining 20%? Well, some of them are still very bitter about what they lost. One said that he would never forgive himself for his own stupidity, another said that he has a voice in his head that tells him how stupid he was a hundred times a day.

So what is my conclusion? Well, having discussed this with over 50 people my conclusion is that it’s not the mistake that matters it’s how you handle it. An American businessman had a terrible disaster with a business called pets.com. His name is Jeff Bezos and he is the owner of a little company called Amazon. If you have made a mistake you can let it overshadow the rest of your life or you can learn from it and use it to spur yourself on to greater success. The original event might have been out of your control but you can change your response so choose well.

Adam Walker is a management consultant trainer and business sales broker who has worked in the property sector for over 25 years.

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