Admitting your mistakes


Before my last trip to France, I went to Currency Exchange International in mid-town Manhattan to change $300 into Euros. I recommend this service as it will reconvert any leftover currency if you keep your receipt, a welcomed feature for travelers.

While at a Parisian pharmacy, I used a 50 Euro note to pay for some special skin cream.  C’est de l’argent faux, Madame,” I was told much to my embarrassment. I quickly paid with my credit card and sheepishly slinked out of the store feeling like a petty thief trying to pass off a fake bill. When I checked my wallet, I saw I had another 50 Euro note. One hundred Euros down the drain!

Back home, I marched into Currency Exchange International ready to do battle. I was 99% convinced they were the source of the counterfeit bills. The young man at the desk politely confirmed that my two 50 Euro notes were bad and therefore, he could not accept them. This did not make me happy. I insinuated that this might be an insider’s job and clearly, more serious than just my two bills. He immediately called his manager who said she would review the video camera recording of our earlier transaction and get back to me.

The next morning, I got the bad news. The manager confirmed they actually had not given me any 50 Euro bills.  This is when my conviction of being a victim started to take a different turn. She invited me into the bank to have a look for myself. What if I were wrong?  I had made quite a fuss and now I was starting to question myself. I admitted to the manager that I might have put other bills in the envelop where I was safely keeping the receipt. Luckily, I had not resorted to any social media threat, something I had kept in my back pocket in case I needed a one-two punch tactic.

Later that day, I visited the exchange bureau and met Jane Harris,the manager.  Jane politely welcomed me back, asked if I had a good trip and then showed me the video.  In fact, she was correct. The video shows her counting out—three times, no less— 20, 10 and 5 Euro notes only. No 50s!   I immediately apologized as sincerely as I could.   As a smart business person, Jane took immediate action to diminish my obvious embarrassment by politely giving me a quick lesson on how to identify fake Euros.  

No one likes admitting their mistakes as they stab at one’s pride.  However, assuming you don’t make many of them, you can use them as an opportunity to learn something. In discussing how to handle making mistakes at breakfast the following day, a friend of mine—a successful international banker—told me he always writes them down.  “Smart people learn from their mistakes.  During the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 I made a few mistakes.  When this past February rolled around, and it was looking as if we might have a comparable situation with the stock market, I pulled out my list.  I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes twice.  And, I didn’t.”

My breakfast pals and I discussed the pros and cons of admitting your mistakes.  One friend, an engineer, suggested that confessing your error is really a form of “intellectual honesty.” To illustrate his point, he told the story of a construction design flaw which could have whipped out one of Manhattan’s tallest buildings at the time, the Citicorp Center, had a mistake not been admitted.   

Most of the credit for this ground-breaking building, built in 1977, is given to William LeMessurier, its chief architectural engineer. It took Diane Hartely, an undergraduate architectural student who was studying the building, to discover his design flaw. Her bold claim was that the building could blow over in the wind.  Her observations were presented first to her professor who dismissed them.  Understanding the seriousness of the problem, Diane took it upon herself to directly contact William LeMessurier’s firm.   LeMessurier passed it on to some of his junior engineers to review.  They, too, said her assertion was without merit. However, the issue didn’t sit well with him.  Eventually, LeMessurier personally examined Diane’s detailed explanation of the design oversight and discovered she was in fact absolutely correct.  He immediately contacted CityCorps’ then President, John Reed, admitted the mistake and set forth a viable—albeit completely secretive—solution to correct the design flaw. (For a fascinating read, check out Joel Werner’s article for Slate at

The importance of this story is about having the integrity to admit the mistake outright and then taking immediate action. My friend went on to say that Reed never sued the structural engineering firm. Instead, both LeMessurieur and Reed worked together to correct the admitted error, and in so doing, avoided a potential disaster which could have cost thousands of lives.

But what about those individuals and corporations who refuse to admit any wrong doing?  We’ve all read about companies—particularly car manufacturers and pharmaceutical firms—who know they’ve made mistakes but choose to protect shareholders’ stock prices over people’s safety.  Even when they are caught red handed and subjected to substantial fines, rarely do these amounts equal the profits they’ve made in the meantime shielding their errors from the general public.

Over the years, I’ve had many thought-provoking, business conversations with an engineer friend of mine, Larry McComber, who headed up a highly successful manufacturing company in Iowa. Early in his career, he joined YPO where he gained invaluable business insight through discussions with other young presidents.  I emailed him to ask his opinion about people who don’t acknowledge their errors. “Refusing to admit your mistakes does not insure your staff or others are ignorant of those mistakes.  Pretending infallibility then also brings your honesty into question.  The situation becomes more, not less, corrosive.”

Always ready with an astute observation coupled with an acerbic wit, Larry continued. “If you're making no mistakes, you're not trying hard enough.  You're stuck in your ‘safe zone’."

Larry also reminded me that there can be positive outcomes of certain accidental mistakes such as the development of the "Post-It" note.  According to him, this resulted from a 3M scientist's attempts to find a use for a bad batch of adhesive, clearly someone’s mistake.  Pacemakers, penicillin, plastics and saccharine are just some of the many other beneficial discoveries which resulted from an initial blunder.

“Think of all the things you've learned by making mistakes,” Larry continued.  “Whether it's riding a bicycle, getting along with others, assembling a wardrobe or whatever, we make mistakes and do better in the future by avoiding repetition. “

While I know I’ll make other mistakes in life, one which I’ll try extra hard to avoid will involve counterfeit currency!  In the meantime, I plan to mail my two fake 50 Euros notes to a friend with two young daughters to help replenish the tooth fairy’s coffers.