10 Biggest Career -- and Life -- Mistakes

Last Updated Sep 28, 2011 6:33 PM EDT

Learning from our mistakes is not all it's cracked up to be. (Besides, if all it takes to be smart is learning from mistakes I'd be Stephen Hawking.)

It's a lot easier -- and less painful -- to avoid making mistakes in the first place. Here are 10 in particular to avoid:

  1. See work/business as a buffet. Plate piled too high with possibilities? Ideas are energizing. Opportunities are seductive. But execution is everything. Take on too much and nothing gets done well. Keep getting distracted by the latest trend and great ideas fall by the wayside. By all means check out the entire spread at the professional and business buffet... but only select a few items at a time.
  2. Think style creates substance. Brands are built by go, not show. Logos, identity packages, snappy wardrobes, personalized work spaces... none of that matters if you can't deliver. (Only when style is pushed to an extreme can it appear to create substance... but for most of us that's simply not possible.) Take Malcolm Gladwell; if he wasn't so smart the hair wouldn't be nearly so cool. Whether business or personal, your style will create a memorable brand as long as you deliver. So just be you and get to work.
  3. Think size matters. Holding out for the job you really want? Job-hopping is no longer a career killer, so take a good job and keep looking for and building the skills required to gain a great job. Trying to create a product that meets every conceivable consumer need? Sooner is almost always better than later, so make it work, get it to market, and then start refining based on customer feedback rather than just your own intuition. Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn started as a sales associate. Apple's first location was a garage. Don't be afraid -- or have too big an ego -- to start small.
  4. Underestimate time. Nothing -- nothing -- will go as quickly as you predict. (Except start-up capital.) Make projections, but always factor in different scenarios. If you don't get promoted in a year, what will you do? If you don't gain anticipated market share in six months, what will you do? An estimate is theoretical, but plans are concrete. Know what you'll do if your guess is wrong -- because it will be.
  5. Underestimate money. Obvious, right? Not really. Think about the last time you estimated cost, whether for business, for a project at work, for a home improvement, whatever. Was your estimate off? Yep. Was it low? Yep. We consistently underestimate cost because we let hope creep into our calculations. Relocating always costs more than we think. A start-up, no matter how "lean," always involves unforeseen costs. Just because you really want something to work out doesn't mean it will magically cost less. Apply sensitivities and create plans in case your estimates are wrong -- because they will be.
  6. See plans as products. A friend has spent the last two years researching and crafting his business plan. Somewhere along the line the plan became the product; it's almost like he's forgotten the goal is to actually start a business. List goals, make long-range plans, create to-do lists... and then get going. Most successful people are decent planners who excel at adapting.
  7. Give up too soon. Maybe success rhymes with excess for a reason. Most successful people simply work harder and longer. Before you give up, take a step back and decide whether additional effort is all that's required to overcome roadblocks or hurdles. Sometimes it's not the business or the profession; sometimes it's you. (Maybe all you need is a little dose of TUSB.)
  8. Stop doing stupid things. Think about the stories you most often tell about your childhood; if you're like me, your favorites involve stupid -- but unforgettable -- things you did. (How else would I know that cows don't actually tip, riding theater curtains as they close is frowned upon, and that once sealed a glass bottle filled with a lot of dry ice and a little water will blow up a mailbox?) Maturity is fine but silly is memorable. Once in awhile pick something stupid -- and legal -- and be a kid again. The fun you have will transform your everyday life.
  9. Fail to check the mirror. We're all affected by what others think to some degree... but what do you want? What really matters to you? Live your life based on other peoples' opinions and you end up living for and through them. All that really matters is what matters to you -- take regular long looks in the mirror and be sure you're living your life.
  10. Forget to call your parents. Customers, bosses, coworkers... they all come and go. Parents are forever -- until they're gone. They love you. Call them.
Any you want to add?

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Photo courtesy flickr user Andrew Stawarz, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.