Learning from Mistakes. Even the big ones. Especially the big ones.

By Colleen Francis

As a sales trainer, I spend a lot of time in front of crowds, and sharing stories is an important part of what I do. When I'm speaking with people, I don't just share with them my success stories. I talk about the mistakes that I've made along the way, too—like, for example, the time when I was a rookie in sales and tried to build a rapport with a customer by commenting on the lovely desktop photo of that person's two sons…only to find out that the boys were actually girls.

My enthusiasm for sharing stories like that sometimes surprises people when really it shouldn't.

Granted, nobody likes to make mistakes, but it's really true that we learn from them. We're hard-wired for that! In fact, a recently published study by psychologists at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom suggests that for each of us, our brains become more skillful based on the mistakes that we make throughout our lives.

Learning isn't limited to what we experience first-hand. We can gain just as much—and maybe even more—by sharing those stories with others and listening to their own accounts of blunders and mishaps encountered both in professional and private life.

As communications theorist Walter Fisher (he's the author of "Human Communication as Narration") reminds us, human beings are storytelling creatures. And whether it's a story that we tell others or one that others tell to us, the most memorable ones tend to be those that we can identify with at a personal level—ones that we can check against our own experiences. In that sense, our shortcomings complete each and every one of us. Since to err is human, sharing some of those stories with others is really a great opportunity to give a more complete picture of who we are. So why not share what we know with others? And just as important, why not share with others what we have learned from our mistakes…even our biggest gaffes?

Consider these classic stories of people who have made mistakes on the road to success.

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computer, was once fired by that same company…a company that he co-founded.

Abraham Lincoln lost several state elections before being elected President of the United States.

Bob Dylan's first album in 1962 was initially such a poor seller (his first record only sold 5000 copies) he was nearly fired by his record company.

Going back to my own story of woe—the desktop photo incident—what I learned was that as far as my own skills were concerned, scanning someone's desk wasn't a very effective approach to rapport building. I found it was too easy for me to get myself into trouble even though my intentions were honorable. I had to find another approach that would work for me.

Over the years I have shared this experience often with many people (and rest assured, I have plenty of other stories too), I have gained an entire toolbox of solutions. Here's why. People are reciprocal creatures—we tend to give unto others what they give to us. So one of the added benefits of sharing that particular story with others is that invariably I wind up telling it to someone what has had the same experience and they share with me their own lessons from their experience.

And there's one more reason why mistakes and the lessons we learn from them are made for sharing. Because it teaches us to keep our egos in check and to be gracious about the success we enjoy in our lives. As I am fond of saying, the best behavioral change we can make is to simply get over ourselves. Doing so puts us in the right frame of mind, so we can embrace who we are and what we do and stay focused on our customers.

So don't be afraid of your mistakes. Embrace them. Learn from them and share.

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Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions (www.EngageSelling.com). Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.

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