What Have You Learned from a Mistake? / by Cristian Mitreanu

This essay was part of my application to the Harvard Business School MBA program, submitted on March 6, 2009. Answering the question "What have you learned from a mistake?" in 400 words or less was one of the required essays.


In general, identifying a mistake is not as easy as it may appear. One reason is the fact that the difficulty of such a task tends to increase with the impact of the action taken – the more life-changing the action’s impact, the longer the timeframe necessary to clearly categorize that action. What may initially seem to be a mistake can turn out to be an action with an overall positive impact. And these are the kind of actions that provide the most valuable lessons.

The less obvious reason for the general difficulty of categorizing an action stems from the fact that everything is governed by a principle of cause and effect. In short, the past determines the present, which further determines the future. So, even if an action’s outcome may have seemingly played out, the analysis should not be bounded by the action’s immediate context. Whether a past action was a mistake, or not, should be determined in relationship to one’s desired future, which is a rather fuzzy system of reference.

One example of an important and hard-to-categorize action relates to my approach to learning English in the years preceding my permanent relocation to the United States. Specifically, it is the decision to assign this task a relatively low priority. Although the decision has the makings of a mistake, its outcome is still playing out, so I would rather refer to it as something that I would have done differently. Nonetheless, the lessons are valuable and plentiful.

Moving to America was one of my major goals since early on. For me, this was the place where the future happens, and where I could attempt to “change the world.” Yet, in spite of the “advance notice,” the opportunity caught me unprepared. Not only that I had no realistic idea of what it takes to become fluent in English, but I had never been to the United States before, let alone lived there. Consequently, the assumption underlying my relocation – experience and education matter most, language will catch up – was flawed.

What followed was a nine-year journey peppered with valuable lessons, ranging from general (i.e., “take nothing for granted”) to specific (i.e., local culture). Nonetheless, the most important gain is a deeper knowledge of self, which might have never been possible without that “mistake.” Furthermore, it is an insight that confirms and strengthens my long-held values and career objectives.