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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lerner

The wrong type of mistake

You can learn a lot about a person from the kind of mistakes they regret. (A wise friend* once told me this.)

Some people sweat typos, some worry about offending others or looking silly, and some regret missed opportunities.

That’s why, when I interview people I always ask “tell me about a mistake you’ve made?” For starters, it’s a good way to screen for defensiveness vs. an ownership mindset.

But now that I’ve asked that question dozens of times, I’ve noticed a deeper pattern: 99% of us worry about the wrong types of mistakes.

(Before reading further ask yourself, “What are some recent mistakes I regret?” and think of a few examples.)

When I interview people for jobs in startups, most of them describe a time when a plate hit the floor and shattered. You see, in a startup, everyone tries to keep 100 plates spinning and that’s hard. Sometimes you miss one. Most people tell me about a project that was late, sloppy, or just didn’t get done.

But here’s the thing… While that is a normal way to think about mistakes, the bigger mistake is trying to keep 100 plates spinning in the first place. Truth is, you don’t need 100 plates in a startup. And worrying about all those spinning plates makes it hard to discern the select few that actually matter.

I understand why startups feel the need to spin so many plates. It’s hard to decide which plates need to crash, and none of us like when plates hit the floor because we worry about what other people will think of us. So we need explicit permission to drop some plates.

Simple next step

Ask each person on your team to write down five things you could stop doing tomorrow without really hurting the business. Next, go around the room (or Zoom) and ask each person to read out their list. You'll probably find a lot of similarities in the responses, and when you disagree, it should lead to a productive discussion. Once you agree on a few, make that list, and break some plates.

An Outside Perspective

Would you like someone else to look at your list? Someone who can help you figure out which of your ideas are distractions, and which ones have the potential to be huge? Maybe an experienced outsider who has worked with hundreds of startups before? That’s one of the first things we do with teams during our coaching programme - applications are open for the May cohort.

* That wise friend was Paddy Lambros, head of talent at Atomico, VC.

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