Embrace Your Inner “Screw-Up”

First published January 19, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Humans hate making mistakes. But the fact is, making mistakes is an essential part of being human. Somehow, we have to learn to live on the edge of this paradox. For digital marketers, our entire industry is balanced on this particular precarious precipice.

There are a few rules of thumb to “screwing up” successfully:

You Can Only Learn from Others if You’re in the Middle of the Pack

If you’re a digital marketer, you’ve decided to travel at the head of the herd. Congratulations. But here’s the thing. You’ve volunteered to make mistakes. The mark is on your forehead and it’s your job to poke the bushes and test the waters, flushing out danger for others to take heed of.

Humans have a long history of leveraging the principle of safety in numbers. But in that dynamic, some have to live on the edge and let others learn from their mistakes. The advantage of that position is that you’re also the first to take advantage of the unchartered wins that come from conquering new challenges. The risks are greater, but so are the rewards. If this balance doesn’t appeal to you, move back to center and follow the leaders. Just realize it’s a lot more crowded there, and there might not be enough perks to go around.

The More Unstable the Environment, The More Important it is to Make Mistakes

You don’t need the safety of a herd in safe and stable environments. We call it civilization. It’s on the frontier, where things get precarious, that you need safety in numbers. Ironically, it’s on the frontier where the herd thins out and you often have to go it alone. That really leaves you no choice. There is no beaten path to follow. You’re going to have to be the one that forges it. And that means you’re going to make mistakes. Get used to it. Embrace it. Take solace in the fact that while taking action may cause mistakes, not taking action pretty much guarantees you’ll end up as somebody’s lunch.

If You Can’t Get Comfortable, Get Courageous

I often tell aspiring digital marketers that this is not a comfortable career. If you want security, become an accountant. But if you want a challenge, you’ve found the right niche. Digital marketing takes courage. It means trusting your gut and betting on long shots. It means embracing opportunities without a mound of evidence to rely on. To succeed in this business, first you need passion — but courage runs a close second.

Mistakes = Learning

I don’t know where making mistakes got such a bad rap from, but I shudder to think where humanity would be without them (read Ralph Heath’s excellent book, “Celebrating Failure”). You can’t learn without making mistakes. You can’t gain ground without occasionally falling down. I’ve spent the majority of my life as an entrepreneur, which pretty much means the regular making of mistakes, so perhaps I’ve become used to it.  But I honestly don’t know why screwing up has been stigmatized to the extent it has.

Learn to “Do It Wrong Quickly”

My friend Mike Moran wrote a book a few years ago calling “Do it Wrong Quickly,” which uncovers one of the essential elements of successfully screwing up: to build learning into the process. Understand that failure is an essential part of the equation (especially in digital marketing), and go in using it as an opportunity to learn quickly, adjust and iterate your way to success. By going in anticipating failure, you won’t be surprised when it happens and can quickly move beyond failure to learning and adapting.

Realize You Don’t Have to Be Perfect — You Just Have to be Better than the Other Guy

Finally, this is a game of percentages. If you bump up the level of activity, you’ll make more mistakes, but you’ll also win more battles. You’ll “fail forward” — and soon you’ll be looking at the competition in your rearview mirror.

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