Personal Development & Mentoring

'Learning from Mistakes'

21 June 2022
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
Short stories with key learning points for personal development and professional development. Often to make you smile, and always to make you think.
Not all learning is formalised and planned. People talk about attending ‘the University of Life’ – and here’s an excellent example..

you'll like this story if you're interested in...

A young manager was hired as a project manager in a multi-national company.On their first assignment, keen to do well, and justify the faith (and salary) given to them, the manager took several decisions that proved to be ill-considered and costly, losing the firm a significant amount of money – some £500,000. 

The young manager was summoned to the Chief Executive’s Office, and entered the Chief’s office with trepidation. For the next hour they were given a grilling: what decisions had they made? why? what would a better decision have been in retrospect? why? 

At the end of the hour the young manager was worn out, and a nervous wreck. The Chief Executive ended their questions, and told them the meeting was over. Sure they had been fired, they asked if the Chief Executive wanted them to clear their desk and leave straight away. "Why on earth would I want you to do that?”, said the Chief Executive. “It’s just cost the company £500,000 to train you."

People often learn by the mistakes they make.No-one wants to make a mistake, and some can be really costly. But what is the point of moving someone on from that area as a result? Surely the best option is to ensure that whoever made the mistake has learned from it – because they are unlikely to make that mistake again.Hiring someone new might cause the same situation to repeat – or the company might increase its level of supervision and control to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Both these options are more risky and costly than giving the individual the chance to learn, and to show they have learned. 

The worst mistake is the one no-one learns from.

 “Why on earth would I want you to do that?”, said the Chief Executive. “It’s just cost the company £500,000 to train you.”
People often learn by the mistakes they make.... 
... the worst mistake is the one no-one learns from.

There are a number of takeaways from this story:

  • Perspective
  • Reframe
  • Return on investment (RoI)


There are clearly two perspectives at work here – two meanings given to the same event. For the new employee, the meaning given was dreadful: he focused on the mistakes made, the costs incurred, and his feeling of failure. He clearly would not have been surprised to have been given the sack. But for his manager, the meaning was different; the costs, the mistakes, had already been incurred. They could not be recovered; the best that could be done was to learn from them – and that led to his conversation with the project manager. And to continue the different perspectives theme – what one regarded as ‘a grilling’, the other saw as probing for understanding.


This really follows on from the previous point. The Chief Executive is as likely to have been upset, frustrated and even angry about the costly mistake; that is a typical, human response. But to his credit, he was able to reframe it – put a different interpretation on the event. Rather than see it through the frame of complete loss, he chose to see it ‘reframed’ as a costly investment in learning.


And this follows from the previous point. In one sense, there was a negative return on investment: a £500, 000 loss; but if the reframe and consequence ‘grilling’ led to someone improving their future performance, then there is a different assessment of RoI, By talking to the project manager the Chief Executive could tell whether learning had taken place, and if it had, then that would ensure there would be some return on the investment.


This stands for ‘short term pain, long term gain’. Sure enough, in the short term, the immediate loss of £500,000 is very painful. But set this against the longer term gains, of which there could be two. Firstly, the project manager is very unlikely to make the same mistakes again; and secondly, suppose the Chief Executive had sacked the project manager: what then? Presumably someone else would be appointed in his place – and with what guarantee they would not make a similar, costly mistake? Who would you rather employ: the same person, learning from his errors, and being given another chance to make amends and shine; or someone new…?

Effective Storytelling - Podcast
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