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My first business was launched when I received a coveted shoe shine kit for my tenth birthday. In bed that night I rehearsed my sales pitch until I could say it without fear. The next morning, I lost no time loading my shoe shine kit into my wagon and visiting every home in my neighborhood collecting shoes to be shined until my wagon was full.

Back at home I got to work. With newspaper spread out on my bedroom floor I carefully spread the polish over each pair, then buffed them to a glossy shine. When I’d finished I carefully placed each pair back in my wagon and set off to deliver them and collect 25 cents a pair.

There was just one small hitch … I hadn’t kept track of where I got each pair. When my dad came home that night he walked with me through the neighborhood and waited patiently while I knocked on each door and explained my dilemma. By the time it was dark my wagon was empty and all the shoes had been delivered.

That was enough to put an end to my business. I was embarrassed and humiliated. At ten I hadn’t yet developed enough wisdom to learn from that mistake and label the darn shoes the next time. I just gave up. I hid my shoe shine kit at the back of my closet and didn’t shine a pair of shoes again until I joined the Army.

Over time; however, I learned more from that failure and those that followed than most of the successes I’ve had in my career.

  • Admit My Error: On reflection, my father and none of those people were angry with me. Once I explained my mistake and asked for help resolving the problem every one of them tried to help me. I’ve learned this is true of most of the mistakes I’ve made. Taking accountability is empowering and most people respect an honest apology when coupled with an honest effort to correct the issue.
  • Don’t Give Up: I’d like to say this was the only time I ever gave up, but it wasn’t. It took many years before I learned to honestly assess if there was something I can do or had done differently and then took the necessary action, either to correct the error or prevent it from happening again.
  • Define Success and the Required Steps to Get There: I finally learned from a wise colleague to ask myself and anyone else involved, “What does it looks like when it’s done?”  This ensures I have a clear picture of what success looks like, what it’s going to take to get there, and if it’s a joint effort, everyone is aligned.
  • Strive for Continuous Improvement: At the end of every job or project I take the time to reflect on what and how I can do better. This can sometimes be painful, but taking the time for it helps me reduce the probability I’ll make the same mistake again.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups. Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released soon.