The Art of the Error Message

Ever heard of a “wrongologist”? Did you know that there is an entire TED talk playlist about learning from mistakes? Have you read the 2016 Harvard Business Review article about increasing your return on failure ratio? Research has been growing on what can sometimes seem like a common sense notion - that great things come out of learning from our mistakes. The key is to embrace those mistakes and reflect on them.

It is a challenge to put time and energy into thinking about things that went wrong. And when things don’t go as you’d expect in Excel, it is a whole lot easier to think that Excel is broken or just doesn’t work for you. For anything you are trying to accomplish in Excel, there are countless ways for things to go wrong - your data could be set up incorrectly, you could have one letter or number wrong in a formula, or you could have the wrong formatting applied to your spreadsheet. These are all easily correctable, if you’ve got the right mindset for your approach.

There are 4 common mindset errors that you can avoid, and a simple trick that you’ll read about just a little further down to shortcut your way to success. But first let’s dig into these avoidable mindset errors:

Getting technical before getting critical

Using Excel take a lot more critical thinking than most people think it does. Before you can get Excel to do anything that you want, you need to think through the steps that are needed to get you where you want to go. One of the most common mistakes that people make is to jump right in and start manipulating data, writing formulas, and pressing buttons. While I love to encourage experimentation and trying to figure things out, this will only be successful if you have already thought about where you are going and how you are going to try to get there. Avoid this error by taking 5 minutes before you start working in Excel to write or draw or just talk out loud about what your end-goal is, and how you think you are going to get there. Whatever creative way helps you think through problems and solutions, do that!

Not loving the error messages

Does your mind just turn off when you see things in Excel like #DIV/0!, #N/A!, #NAME?, #REF!, and #VALUE!? What do you think when I tell you that these error messages are actually your best friends? OK, let me explain. If things are going wrong in your spreadsheet without error messages, like your formulas aren’t adding up right or your PivotTables aren’t showing you all your data, then there is no message about what is going wrong and how you can correct it. But when you get an error message, you’ve got a key to how to fix the issue. If you get an error message, you can jump for joy, because you already have some really important information about what went wrong and how you can fix it. There are tons of resources on the internet that can tell you exactly what all those error messages are trying to tell you, but before you go looking for them, let’s talk about the next common mindset error.

Getting lost in the internet

Everything you ever needed or wanted to know about Excel is on the internet already, in a few thousand different variations and approaches. It is easy to wile away hours searching for the resource that will help you learn what you need to learn. But for a lot of people, these resources just aren’t as helpful as they could be. Some of them are too technical, most of them use examples that focus on sales and nothing else, and there are just so many of them it can be a big time-suck looking for the one that speaks to you. This is doubly bad, because it can leave you not only without the information you went looking for, but can discourage you from learning more. Getting to know the resources that are most helpful to you and sticking to those can be a first line of defense against getting lost in all the great material that is so readily available, but which can also be a bit overwhelming.

Getting frustrated

Frustration is one of the biggest hurdles to a mindset that will lead to success using Excel. And I get it, there is a lot to get frustrated over. Like when your calculations don’t work out how you expected them to, or when you can’t quite figure out how to write that formula without getting an error message, or when you can’t find the button that you know you used last week or last year but seems to have disappeared. Frustration with Excel can come from thinking that Excel just isn’t working for you, or that you can’t work it, which can turn a lot of people away from using Excel more. The thing to remember here is that Excel always works the way it is supposed to - but a lot of the time we don’t know how it is supposed to work, and how to make it work for us.

One simple trick

Today, you can practice one simple trick to help you overcome these pitfalls: Set a time limit for yourself when you experience an error or a mistake. I like to call this the


When you hit a snag in using Excel, like an error message or incorrect calculations, try to solve that snag for a set period of time. A good rule of thumb is to take only 15 minutes - that includes any google searching - and then STOP. Take a break, make some tea, play with your kids, or search YouTube for 90s hip hop music videos. Whatever you need to do to get away from the potential frustrations of working in Excel while you are still learning to make it work for you. Whenever you feel ready, go back to it, but remember to use your I-hit-a-wall-time-limit whenever you need it.

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