Toastmasters: Ouch! I Think I Just Learned Something

What do you think when you hear the words “failure” and “mistake?” When many of you hear those words, your mind immediately goes to a bad place. The “I can’t believe I did that! How can I be so stupid!” place. But I want to tell you today that there’s an upside to mistakes. Being open and honest about mistakes and learning from them is key to being successful in business and leading a good life.

I used to work at Amazon. One day a friend who worked at a big bank came over and said, “At my company, we’re really afraid of Amazon. What is Amazon afraid of?”

I told her that Amazon isn’t afraid of big companies like Apple or Google or even disruptive start-ups. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and founder, says that he’s most afraid that the company will stop making mistakes and learning, and when that happens, Amazon will, and I quote, have “stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline and death.”

So how does Amazon make sure that doesn’t happen. They have a different mindset about how they learn. I’d like to tell you about two different mindsets that the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered: the growth mindset and the fixed mindset.

The Growth (Amazon) Mindset

In the growth mindset, which is the Amazon mindset, people believe that life is a series of challenges and that we can learn from each challenge. People with a growth mindset believe that there’s nothing about themselves they can’t improve. They believe that their IQ or musical talents are just starting points to be developed.

They know that the only way to get better at something is by trying and failing and learning. They know your muscles don’t get stronger at the gym. When you go to the gym your muscles get weaker and eventually, they fail. When you go home, your muscles grow back stronger so that they can take on increasingly punishing challenges. There’s no way to get stronger without getting weaker first, and there’s no way to learn something without making mistakes.

Fixed (Typical Company) Mindset

A fixed mindset is different. People or companies with a fixed mindset believe that everyone is born with a fixed set of intelligence and skills. Everything that they do in life is just a test to show how well they can apply these gifts. Employees either have the gift or they don’t.

Companies with a fixed mindset are terrified of failure. Employees that fail means that they just didn’t have the right stuff. They say, “Why should we promote the person who fails? We only want successful people here!”

So here’s the trick about failing. Failure is an inherent aspect of growth. Jeff Bezos even says that he wants Amazon to be the best place in the world to fail. But failure is painful. Learning is about getting B’s and C’s before you learn what it takes to get an A. And it’s not about cruising through those B’s and C’s either. It’s about trying your absolute hardest and still coming up short.

But I don’t have to tell any of you what it means to take a risk. To do something that you’ve never done before, like join a group to give a speech in front of a bunch of strangers. To face one of the biggest fears that people have, knowing that you’ll probably suck at it the first time. You know what it’s like to try, and make mistakes, and then learn a tremendous amount.

For those of you who are now comfortable in Toastmasters, think back to when you were early in your journey, like me. When you were pretty terrified of messing up. And remember that the greatest learnings and the most excitement comes from taking the biggest risks.

So I have a challenge for all of you. After you spend a minute telling me about the mistakes that I made in this speech so I can improve, write down one big thing you want to learn during this pandemic. Do something hard and risky. Try something you’ve never tried before. Fail big. No one will see you.  No one’s even going outside. No one knows how long this craziness is going to last, but I want all of you to use this opportunity to make those mistakes and learn that new thing or pick up that that skill that you never thought you could have done.