What Can We Learn From Other Women’s Career Mistakes?

Photo: Vintage Images

“Would that book ever exist for men?” a colleague asked upon hearing about Mistakes I Made at Work, a new anthology of reflections from various women about things they’ve gotten wrong in their early careers. It’s a question anticipated by a cheesy strike-through in the subhead: “25 Influential Men Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong.” Yet in spite of the gimmicky setup, this meditation on mistakes avoids cloying self-deprecation, instead highlighting what may be one of women’s overlooked strengths: admitting when they’ve done something wrong.

Jessica Bacal, the director of the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College and editor of the book, began interviewing women after noticing a general hesitance among both men and women to discuss career mistakes openly. “Over the years, I’d seen too many women waxing rhapsodic about ‘the value of learning from mistakes,’ without actually describing any, to find the platitude helpful,” she writes in the introduction.

The resulting collection — drawn from interviews with everyone from Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel, to science education advocate and former presidential adviser Shirley Malcom — is wide-ranging enough to avoid the stiflingly corporate perspective of many mainstream conversations about women in the workplace. Each chapter provides one woman’s reflections on her early career, with a focus not so much on regrets as on things she would do differently considering what she knows now. The anecdotes they share are surprisingly absorbing, perhaps simply because they feel so sincere.

No one interviewed attempts to minimize their mistakes. And these aren’t endearing little slipups; these are huge and humiliating. Danielle Ofri, a clinician at Bellevue Hospital and professor at NYU’s School of Medicine, tells the story of misadministering insulin to a diabetes patient during her residency, putting the patient at risk of cardiac arrest; Carla Harris, a Wall Street executive and chairperson of the National Women’s Business Council, recounts a botched financial transaction that lost her company substantial money. The tone avoids platitudes about “embracing” your mistakes, and focuses instead on learning to accept responsibility for your actions with integrity, without dwelling in shame. “I just don’t think we model vulnerability for young people as much as we need to,” reflects Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, on losing the New York Congressional race in 2009. “It’s important for people to see that you can pick yourself up and move on.”

Each story indulges the voyeuristic desire to chart the paths that other women’s lives have taken. And though the end of each chapter offers bullet points of advice, sheer diversity keeps the book from feeling narrowly prescriptive. Instead it’s a comforting — and genuine — reminder that everyone makes mistakes.

Learning From Other Women’s Career Mistakes