Learning Nothing is the Only Real Mistake

Last week, an old friend of mine served as an expert for a mentoring event. Lin is a young public relations professional who found early success in her career and loves to give back to her community. During the event, a woman in her late 50’s stopped by her table and introduced herself as another PR Pro. Well, actually, not feeling like she could call herself a “PR Pro” anymore was why Sally stopped by Lin’s table.

Sally told Lin she’d built her career in the 1990s, working in the technology sector where she represented fledgeling startups who are now famous, like Yahoo. Sally developed a strong reputation, which made getting clients and gaining them media coverage easy for 30 years.

This year went a little differently. She had secured a new startup client with a bright future, but struggled to get any reporters excited about the company. Sally’s old reporter friends had changed careers or retired, causing her contact list to suffer. The new reporters were more savvy about hiding from “pestering” PR people. Instead of being easily accessible by phone, reporters now wanted Sally to email them or pitch them on Twitter. It was all too much for Sally. She felt like a failure who had lost her mojo, and told Lin she had decided to quit the PR world.

Ever curious, Lin asked Sally why she didn’t choose to adapt to the new ways of doing things? The look on Sally’s face told Lin it had never occurred to her to update her skills. Sally was suffering from cognitive inertia. Her beliefs about who she was and the kind of environment she needed to be successful were fixed, and even the idea of losing her career was not enough to cause her to let them go.

Successful business people understand that a willingness to evolve is necessary to thrive in an ever shifting marketplace. That drive to adapt and change is usually not rooted in getting sales for their own sake; the sales are merely a bridge to some larger vision. For startups, those sales may provide the means to disrupt an industry or invent new markets. For a consultant like Sally, adaptation could allow her to build a legacy, support an industry, and perhaps build a practice that she could sell in the future. And it could enable her to once again experience mastery of her craft.

These larger goals drive us to keep our skills sharp — to stay at the bleeding edge of innovation, and continue to rethink our processes. But in Sally’s mind she had already achieved her “PR Pro” status, and apparently had failed to come up with anything more to strive for beyond that. Sally’s inertia wasn’t due to some unwillingness to put in the work; she was just so fixated on what she had lost that she didn’t have any space to consider what new possibilities might be available to her. Without another goal that could help her continue to grow, the signals Sally’s life sent her regarding her consulting practice looked more like, “Quit, you washed up failure!” rather than, “Here’s something new I can learn!”

When you have a clear goal and keep yourself moving towards it — even if only baby steps — roadblocks start to reveal themselves as what they truly are: feedback. Sally’s failure to gain media exposure for that hot new startup wasn’t indicating she was at the end of the road in her PR career. Her “failure” was simply a signal that she’d gone too far down the path of “I am an expert,” and that it was time to experience being a student once again.

When you reflect on your current life path, what’s one aspect that seems to have plateaued? Did you previously have goals in that area of your life that you’ve now achieved? Or have you ever set goals for that part of your life? Take a moment to reflect on what you want in that part of your life, and set down three goals that will help you get there.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain

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