Mistakes are an opportunity to learn.

A young vice president was appointed by the board of directors of a bank to replace the retiring president and founder. With fear and trepidation, he made an appointment to visit with the seasoned retiree to seek his advice.

"Mr. Clark, I need your counsel," the vice president said. "How can I possibly be successful in this job?"

The elderly man leaned forward in his chair. "Young man," he growled, "these two words are the key to your success — RIGHT DECISIONS!"

"Thank you, sir. But how can I make sure I am making right decisions?"

"Experience. Experience will ensure you make right decisions."

A long silence followed. "That's helpful," said the young executive, "but how do I get the right experience?"

The elderly man stood, looked him directly in the eye, smiled and responded, "WRONG DECISIONS."

This retiring president admitted to making mistakes and learned from them. I've discovered that the biggest mistake people can make is to be afraid to make one, and perhaps the next biggest is to be afraid to admit having made one.

If you make a mistake, 'fess up. Most of the time people respect those who take responsibility for their own mistakes. Regardless, you will be better off admitting it than spending considerably more energy trying to avoid the subject. Everyone makes mistakes, after all, and if you take the time to learn from what went wrong, you'll be a lot less likely to make the same mistake again.

Be accountable. No one likes doing business with someone who makes excuses. If you don't accept responsibility for the mistakes you make, you will lose customers and the trust and respect of employees.

As Winston Churchill said, "If you simply take up the attitude of defending a mistake, there will be no hope of improvement."

Don't waste time pretending you still have a chance at success when your plans are crumbling around you. You have to be hard-nosed about deciding where to put your resources, and coldblooded about pulling the plug on projects and goals that aren't working out.

Also, don't downplay negative results. Some people try to act as if their failures are no big deal. Don't lose hope or abandon your efforts, but be open about your feelings with yourself and other people.

Author Mortimer Feinberg illustrates that point: "When John Kennedy lost a bid for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956 to Estes Kefauver, he didn't quit. He said, 'OK, now we know the mistakes we made; we know what we have to do to win. In 1960 we'll go for the big job.' The rest is history."

Once you make a mistake and admit it, move on. Beating yourself up publicly or privately doesn't do much good. You need to keep your focus and not get distracted when things go wrong. The great Babe Ruth held the record of 714 career home runs for years, but he also held the record for strikeouts at 1,330. Would he have been so successful if he had focused on the strikeouts every time he was up to bat?

Above all, don't blame others. Focus on solving problems, not finding someone or something to blame. Christopher Columbus made the mother of all mistakes. When he set out in 1492 on his first trans-Atlantic voyage, he announced that he was going west to get to the east. He had plenty of skeptics, but refused to be deterred.

Other explorers had preceded his arrival in North America, but perhaps Columbus' biggest mistake was that he never admitted he had reached a continent previously unknown to Europeans, rather than the East Indies for which he had set course. Columbus always insisted the lands he visited during those voyages were part of the Asian continent. While not without controversy, Columbus' "mistake" changed the course of Western history.

Your mistakes will not likely have that kind of impact. Keep your mistakes in perspective so you can react to them appropriately.

Mackay's Moral: Mistakes can be steppingstones to success.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.