Here’s Proof That Some Workplace Fails Can Pay Off

Some leading women have shared theirs. Because you're not the only one to screw up sometimes


by Anna Hart |
Published on

In her new book, Mistakes I Made At Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong, Jessica Bacal sets out to tell the truth about some of the world’s most successful women: they’ve all had their share of ugly, humiliating and humbling failures. It sounds like a simple idea but, in fact, honesty about screw-ups is in seriously short supply these days.

‘Over the years, I’d seen too many women waxing rhapsodic about “the value of learning from mistakes” without actually describing any,’ observes Bacal, director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College.

‘The average woman (like myself) hears this and thinks, “Sure, easy for you to say it’s important to learn from mistakes, but your mistakes aren’t like mine. Mine are huge.”’

And this is how we women talk ourselves out of giving something a shot. This is how we distance ourselves from the inspirational women we’d love to emulate. And it’s holding us back.

As Bacal points out, women are more likely to get flak for their mistakes, especially in typically ‘male’ roles – a phenomenon known as ‘the glass cliff’.

‘The women I interviewed were eager to break the silence,’ says Bacal. ‘They understand the value of “mistake stories” as a kind of mentorship.’ Here are The Debrief’s five top life lessons from a stellar list of screw-ups....

If you make a big, public mistake, then own it in a big, public way

Carla Harris is one of the most successful and powerful bankers on Wall Street. She remembers her first, expensive, trading mistake…

‘The guilt continued for many days. Meanwhile, a guy at my bank decided to make a big deal about it. “Wow, can you believe it! Oh my gosh, we’re still losing money on that transaction. Boy, that was really costly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in my career.”

‘Finally, I took him into a room and said, “I just want to let you know that I understand the significance of this mistake; I learned from it, and I understand it was expensive. You don’t need to keep talking about it and I’m sure I won’t hear from you about it again, right?” That was the end of that.

‘Your ownership has to be bigger than the deal that some colleague is making. I had gone to my boss behind closed doors and apologised, but I also should have been going to colleagues and peers on the floor, publicly joking and talking about myself.

‘If you make a big mistake and everyone at work knows about it, then let people know that you learned from it and won’t repeat it. That prevents other people from having leverage over you.’

You and your bad decision are two separate things

Danielle Ofri, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine, remembers misadministering insulin to a patient as a young doctor...

‘Luckily the patient was fine, even though he had to spend another day in the ICU. I, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well. It took weeks to pick myself up off the floor, and there was no one to talk to about it.

‘If my attending physician at the time had let me know that errors do happen, and had said something like, “An error doesn’t mean you’re a bad person – it means you’re a human being,” that would have meant a lot.

‘I’ve since thought a lot about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt relates to an act you did, and you can remedy that act to resolve the guilt. But shame is internal; it’s the realisation that you’re not who you thought you were.

‘Guilt makes you want to fix things; but shame makes you want to run and hide. And shame was what I had felt as I stood there in the ER being reprimanded.’

Life is not a game that you always need to be winning

Rachel Simmons, best-selling author of Odd Girl Out, on her decision to abandon a prestigious scholarship at Oxford University and move back in with her parents...

‘When I was approached about applying for the Rhodes scholarship, I balked at first – I loved my life in New York – but I never turn down an opportunity to win, so I applied.

‘The college application industrial complex puts you on a ruthless treadmill of racking up accomplishments to bolster a college application. The danger of the treadmill is that you can end up training for someone else’s race instead of pursuing the life that will be fulfilling to you.

‘So listen to your “internal voice”. When you think about the path you’re on right now, what does the voice say? A full-throated passionate yes? A maybe? Or an I-hate-this-but-it’s-what-I-have-to-do?

‘You can plug your ears for a while, but eventually, that voice grows louder, more ominous, and harder to ignore. Listen to it now before you get in too deep.’

Be flexible in thinking about how to use your talents

Lisa Lutz, best-selling author of The Spellman Files, on the career disaster that forced her to abandon screenwriting for novel-writing…

‘The studio took the script away from me and butchered it, and the resulting film, made in 2000, was an epic disaster.

‘It had a brief release in theatres and played in a couple of small festivals, but when The Hollywood Reporter called its dialogue “tortuously unfunny”, I knew that my career as a screenwriter was over. When I considered this, I felt both deep sorrow and a creeping sense of relief.

‘Screenwriting had been my vocation, and letting go of it felt like real loss; on the other hand, here was an opportunity to think more broadly about what I was going to do with my life.’

When you have major setbacks, you ironically begin to feel like you can do anything because the worst has already happened

Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani ran for Congress in 2009, and didn’t win...

‘I had put my personal savings into the race, and now I was broke. I had made commitments to voters about what I was going to do in the community, and now I felt like I had let them down. It was such a public failure, and meanwhile, I hadn’t made a Plan B.

‘So I told myself that I had two weeks to feel upset about it, to ask myself why, to harass everybody in my life to analyse what had happened. It was helpful to have a timeline for obsessing, to allow myself the indulgence, then commit to moving forward.

‘Failures are hard on the soul, and I think you have to take steps to emotionally and physically recover. My calling is public service, but I wasn’t elected right away, and that’s OK. I don’t think anything has ever come easy for me. When that’s the case, you appreciate the victory so much more.’

Mistakes I Made At Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong, edited by Jessica Bacal, is published by Penguin.

For more great work tips, check out for straight-talking careers advice

Follow Anna Hart on Twitter @AnnaDotHart

Follow Jessica Bacal on Twitter @JessicaBacal

Picture: Getty

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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