Be a Goldfish: Embracing Mistakes in Nonprofit Leadership

Apple TV’s Ted Lasso series has been a huge hit, not only for its entertaining and heartfelt storylines but also for Ted’s homespun, down-to-earth wisdom that he shares with his players, friends, and family.

The Wisdom of Ted Lasso: Understanding 'Be a Goldfish'

One memorable piece of advice that resonates from Season 1 to the finale of Season 3 is encapsulated in the phrase "be a goldfish." In a pivotal moment during Season 1, Ted imparts this wisdom to Sam Obisanya, his star defender, after a challenging practice session. Observing Sam's frustration at being outplayed by his talented teammate Jamie Tartt, Ted pulls him aside and shares, "Sam, do you know what the happiest animal on earth is? It's a goldfish. Do you know why? It's got a ten-second memory. Be a goldfish!" This advice resurfaces in the Season 3 finale when Ted's son, Henry, misses a crucial shot on goal, prompting his father to remind him, "What do we say? Be a goldfish!"

Now whether goldfish have ten-second memories or not (recent studies at Oxford University apparently dispute this claim!) is irrelevant. The truth of Lasso’s advice remains—don’t dwell on mistakes for long. Learn from them, acknowledge the disappointment, but don’t let them define who you are. Rather move on. Look forward to the next moment, the next challenge, the next opportunity to do better.

The Role of Mistakes in Personal and Professional Growth

As nonprofit leaders, as social change advocates, and yes, even as consultants, we make mistakes. We fail to follow-up in a timely, effective way, we misjudge a situation or a person, we miscalculate a budget line or project cost, we were wrong about the best way to implement a program. We are, after all, human, and we try our best to learn from and hopefully not repeat mistakes we have made in the past. We hope, moreover, to minimize as much as possible the negative effects of our mistakes. That is part of the learning process that comes with leadership. Mistakes are inevitable. It’s what we do with them and how we emerge out of them that matters most.

Applying 'Be a Goldfish' Philosophy in Nonprofit Leadership

If Sam hadn’t have gone for the steal or Henry hadn’t taken the shot, the mistake might not have happened. The point was that they took risks that unfortunately didn’t result in success. Mistakes, missteps, missed opportunities are often the results of taking risks. But to be better soccer players, to be more effective nonprofit leaders, Sam, Henry, and we need to learn from those mistakes. Learn from them but not dwell on them. Let us be defined, not by our mistakes, but by how we react to them. Sam got up off the field and tried again. Henry took another shot on goal. They took risks again.

We have opportunities to do great things in and through our respective organizations. Are there risks? Absolutely. Will we make mistakes? Most certainly. How we react to them is key. Let’s go be goldfish!

Check out our blog for more expert insights on how to improve your leadership development across your organization.

Jeff Hensley is a Senior Advisor with Armstrong McGuire who specializes in building fundraising programs, major gift solicitation training, leadership coaching, and capacity and capital campaign assessment and management. Learn more about Jeff and check out his other musings in his bio.

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