Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Value of Making Mistakes

Chances are, as a business owner, you're going to make a mistake or two.

It happens, and you may not even know that you've committed some type of blunder. But, upon reflection, you may realize that you could have done something differently.

It pays to review upon your business activities on a regular basis - to set aside some time to refine processes, or consider how you interact with clients. Learning from your mistakes, and learning how to not make the same mistake again is part of a successful business strategy.

I was looking through some old books at a neighborhood antique shop and found an old volume on Benjamin Franklin. I've been working on putting together some pages on my personal site about Dr. Franklin, so I purchased it. As I was leafing through the book, I came across a story by the good doctor that I thought might be worth sharing here. It's a story that he wrote for his nephew, titled The Whistle

When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one.

I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don't give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.

When I saw any one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, This man gives too much for his whistle.

When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, He pays, indeed, said I, too much for his whistle.

If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, Poor man, said I, you do indeed pay too much for your whistle.

When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, Mistaken man, said I, you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle.

If I see one fond of of fine clothes, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, Alas! says I, he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle.

When I see a beautiful sweet-tempered girl married to an illnatured brute of a husband, What a pity it is, say I, that she should pay so much for a whistle!

In short, I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.

The cost of that whistle was much higher than it should have been, but the value in understanding the mistake made was priceless.

I'm also a believer that it's possible to learn from the mistakes of others, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the words of Benjamin Franklin. His words to his nephew provide a lesson to all of us if we want to take it.

There is value in understanding when you make a mistake, or in considering the mistakes of others, when you learn from them, and can take steps to avoid them.

How do you do that?

  • Understand that the potential exists for making a mistake, and consider setting up processes in your undertakings that help you avoid mistakes.

  • Take notes when you make business decisions, explaining the reasons for those decisions, and review them on a regular basis.

  • Write those notes in a manner that is easy for you to do, and in a way that is easy to review.

  • Make sure that your communications with your customers includes noting whatever criticisms they might have, and solicit their feedback to see what they liked and disliked about your services or products.

  • When you finish a project, make a list of lessons learned - understand the reasons for your successes and your failures, and figure out how to build upon the successes, and how to avoid the failures.

  • If you work as part of a team, work together to come up with that list of reasons for success or failure, and enable each other to build a future of more effective cooperation.

The value of making a mistake is in what you do after you realize you've made one, and in learning to take proactive steps to avoid making more.


Anonymous said...

Dear William,

This is a great article on paying too much for your whistle, and i hope you are OK if I create a link from my blog to yours.

I have always had been a fan of Ben Franklin, and many of his quotes from Poor Richards Almanac is in my PDA.

Best regards,

Wilson Ng

William Slawski said...

Hi Wilson,

The more I read from Benjamin Franklin, the more I like him. I've had a copy of Poor Richard's Almanac for a long time, and it wasn't until recently that I learned how prolific a writer he was.

When we achieve successes, it's often from standing on the shoulders of giants like Franklin, and learning from them.

I stopped by your blog, and like it quite a lot. It's encouraging, optimistic, and informative. I would be honored if you link to my site, and I hope that it's OK if I add a link to yours.

Thank you for your kind words,


Anonymous said...

Dear William,

Thanks. Your blog is much better and ran longer than mine, so cross posting is definitely in my favor. Appreciate it a lot. Seems like you know business a lot, but have some amount of disdain for it...

Best regards,
Wilson Ng

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Wilson.

I suspect that your blog will do fine. From what I've read on your site, the sharing of your thoughts and experiences are for all of the right reasons. People will come across your site, and appreciate it. I find it an intriguing look at business in the Philippines.

I'm not sure that I have disdain for all business. Just some for those who practice some of the uglier aspects of business. People can be successful in their endeavors without resorting to practices that harm others. Maybe blogs like yours and mine can help them.