My colleague wears his mistakes as a badge of honor. Here’s why he’s right–and what it tells us about the unrealistic expectations society sets for women

March 8, 2023, 11:15 AM UTC
Alyssa Jaffee is a partner at 7wireVentures.
Courtesy of Alyssa Jaffee

Recently, one of my colleagues shared a mistake he made in front of a group. He was matter-of-fact, specific, and completely comfortable saying “hey, I got this wrong.” I was surprised to see that he had embraced the vulnerability of not always being right. For me, sharing personal mistakes has always been hard. At that moment I realized that not only I valued his honesty, but I also envied it. Craved it in fact. Why is it hard for most people to embrace their mistakes, me included? Is it a gendered problem? Can it be overcome?

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable and it turns out, the data supports it. Women are conditioned to give the “right” answer because being wrong carries a potential cost. Female leaders are viewed as less competent than their male counterparts when they make mistakes. Studies show that women are so averse to failure that they don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100% qualified.

In the medical world, physician referrals to female surgeons decreased 54% after the death of a patient–but didn’t drop for male surgeons. Female financial advisors are 20% more likely to be fired for work-related mistakes compared to men. They are also 30% less likely to find another job in the financial services industry. Women feel that we’ve had to work twice as hard to never slip up. So, we smother questions, push aside imposter syndrome, and soldier on in the pursuit of being correct.

As a working mom of three young kids, I’ve questioned how early we are taught that being right is more important than learning from failures and mistakes. As parents, we help our kids pick themselves up and keep going with affirmations like “Try your best!” or “Keep working at it!”

Ultimately, it’s the successful outcome that is celebrated–not the journey to get there, or how much grit it takes to fall and get back up. I watch my oldest child working on spelling, celebrating when he writes the word “dog” correctly, not 18 weird G’s that came before it. My second child grins when he hears that perfect “thwack” connection between racket and tennis ball for the first time, completely forgetting the weeks of practice swings. And my sweet baby, watching the whole family clap as he sits up on his own, no longer toppling over by the weight of his large head. Learning never stops for them, but it’s only when they reach that next milestone or breakthrough that they, and we, celebrate.

This conditioning continues as adults and is even more troublesome in professional settings. Errors are identified and accompanied by frustration. The permissive era of “move fast and break things,” while once embraced wholeheartedly, now has its limitations. In venture capital, we are often faced with pressing decisions, like which companies and founders to back or in some cases, an urgent need to remove an executive. The consequences of our decisions don’t always become clear until months or years later. Some of the best venture capital firms wear their mistakes as a badge of honor, knowing the importance of recognizing a miss. Those of us who sit on boards are sometimes faced with knowing that a leader may not be the right fit for a business. And often, instead of listening to our years of experience screaming in the backs of our heads, time, money, and morale are wasted because the wrong person was enlisted to lead the charge.  

We are doing a disservice to ourselves by not embracing the art of making mistakes. It’s in those moments that we learn the most. Living with the discomfort of that decision every day ensures that we don’t make it again.

There is a reason successful sports teams have embodied the practice of reviewing game film. In the middle of a game, it can be difficult for a player to be aware of everything that is going on, regardless of the sport. ChatGPT, which feels like it’s finally delivering on the promise of artificial intelligence, built up its knowledge after years of mistakes. Some of the most influential people of our time cite achievement because of the wisdom and humility of experience. Time creates opportunities to make mistakes. Workplace teams should embrace a similar ethos, learning from mistakes and applying learnings to future decisions.

Last year, I wrote an article imploring people to stop asking women how we have balance (most of us don’t). I talked about learning from being imbalanced–but what I didn’t understand at the time was the importance of learning from mistakes. If we felt that mistakes were embraced, as a team, as women, and as a society, imagine how much we’d all grow. Gone would be the days of seeking perfection, we would be instead opening up for a new kind of thrill–that of learning.

Life catapulted me into adulthood faster than I could have imagined. I never knew you could grow up as an adult. In reality, it’s so obvious that you can. I’ve lived most of my adult life trying to figure out how to “trust my gut” if I see a pattern that I have encountered before. Today, that pattern recognition is a core piece of what makes me a successful executive. The trick of pattern recognition is to recognize past mistakes.

So today, I pledge to seek the comfort of welcoming mistakes just like my male colleague has done. In the end, when we try to rescue our kids–or ourselves–from failure, we are doing everyone a disservice. Instead, we must admit and embrace our mistakes for what they reveal: our path forward.

Alyssa Jaffee is a partner at 7wireVentures.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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