Please welcome Jessica Bacal, editor of Mistakes I Made at Work, who took the time to answer our interview questions!
What inspired you to write Mistakes I Made at Work? What are you hoping the readers get out of it?
I direct a leadership center at Smith College, and as I was getting it off the ground four years ago, I was anxious to do everything right. Still, I made mistakes – sometimes taking the wrong tone in meetings, stepping on colleagues’ toes. When I attended leadership conferences as part of my professional development, I would hear women asked to talk about mistakes on panels, and they always spoke in very general terms, saying how they’d learned from their mistakes – but never actually saying what the mistakes were. I thought: I’d like to know what those mistakes were, partly because I thought it might make me feel better. And I also had a hunch that mistake stories would be valuable to the students with whom I worked at Smith, high-achievers who often felt the same pressure I did to seem like they had it together all the time. I imagined the book as a chorus of mentors who would help readers see that mistakes are just stepping stones in a career; they’re not the end of the world. I hope readers feel comforted and inspired by reading mistake stories from a diverse group of smart, influential women.
Was the book meant to highlight trends of mistakes that women tend to make at work more so than men?
No, not at all. It was meant to highlight the value of showing each other that no one is perfect, and to show the value of mentoring each other by telling our own true stories about work.
How did you go about selecting the women that are featured in the book?
The book includes six Smith alumnae; since I work at Smith, I wanted to draw on our amazing network of alumnae. But I also wanted people from a range of backgrounds and a variety of careers. The book includes an engineer/entrepreneur, a coach, a musician, an investment banker, a doctor, and many others.
Who is the target audience for Mistakes I Made at Work?
I would have said “women at all stages in their careers” – until I shared a few chapters with a mixed group of young people, including men. Several of those men talked about how useful it had been to read about successful people making mistakes and moving on. So really, I think it will be useful to people at all stages of their careers, and especially to those in their twenties and thirties who are just learning to navigate the world of work.
What is your own most memorable work mistake? How did you recover and what did you learn from it?
I’ve made many memorable mistakes, but here’s one: When I was new in my job, my boss asked me to tell a few faculty members about a proposal for a new leadership program. I was anxious about this because I’d made very few presentations – even informal ones – to faculty. Then, just before the meeting, I had a call from my daughter’s day care saying she was sick and needed to be picked up. Instead of canceling the meeting, I handed-off the photocopied proposal to a colleague, asking her to just pass it around. It turned out that the professors had questions, which my colleague couldn’t answer, and when my boss heard about this, she wasn’t happy. “That was a really bad idea,” she told me, and suggested that we take our proposal off the table. I felt badly, but on reflection, realized I’d made that bad decision through a haze of anxiety. I told myself that I needed to remember: I’d gotten the job in the first place because my boss believed in me – she knew I could make these kinds of presentations.
Do you think women handle work mistakes differently from men?
I think women face different challenges. There’s a great book about women, work and leadership called Through the Labyrinth, published by Harvard Business Review Press. The authors write that especially in male-dominated work contexts, “people often assume that women have lower competence, even while they appear to evaluate them favorably.” This means, unfortunately, that there’s less leeway for women to make mistakes in those contexts. Still, mistakes are inevitable, and I think women and men can mentor each other by sharing stories of their own mistakes as learning moments.
These kinds of stories may also help women to digest feedback about mistakes. There are studies showing that women are more strongly influenced by feedback (especially negative feedback). Some researchers suggest that it’s because women, more than men, see feedback as giving them information about their abilities. On one hand, that may not be a bad thing. On the other hand, we don’t want to give others too much power to tell us what our abilities are, especially because ability can grow and change. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the role that mindsets play in achievement. A “fixed mindset” is the belief that you have a certain level of ability (in any given area) and it can’t change; a “growth mindset” is the belief that ability can change with practice. When you have a growth mindset, you’re more likely to take on challenges, learn more, and improve.