At the risk of belaboring a small point (and repeating a bit of the story from my last post), I couldn’t help but write this month’s ezine article on learning from your mistakes since my word bumbling was so fresh in my mind. Here is the article:
This week I was flying high from the opportunity to write a guest post for the New York Times. As someone raised by a family who loves to read and write, it felt like the height of professional accomplishment. Wednesday the post was published and I got a real charge out of seeing my words under the NYT masthead.
Yesterday, I spent many hours writing a detailed post on pricing. As a last touch to the post, I referenced the famous consultant Alan Weiss, author of 25 books, including Million Dollar Consulting. I listened to an interview with him and Robert Middleton and found that while his advice was excellent, his direct way of saying things might put off some of my more sensitive readers. So I mentioned that Alan was a bit “crass.”
Upon checking email early this morning, Alan himself informed me that he was offended by the word “crass.” I looked it up in the dictionary and was very horrified to see that he was right – the word meant “So crude and unrefined as to be lacking in discrimination and sensibility.” I chose the wrong word and offended a complete stranger. And a prominent one at that.
My immediate emotional reaction was dread. What a difference a day makes! I felt really stupid and realized I had made a big mistake.
Any business expert will tell you that all successful people fail and make mistakes, some of them many times. In fact, did you know:
- After Harrison Ford’s first performance as a hotel bellhop in the film Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, the studio vice-president called him in to his office. “Sit down kid,” the studio head said, “I want to tell you a story. The first time Tony Curtis was ever in a movie he delivered a bag of groceries. We took one look at him and knew he was a movie star.” Ford replied, “I thought you were spossed to think that he was a grocery delivery boy.” The vice president dismissed Ford with “You ain’t got it kid , you ain’t got it … now get out of here.”
- Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, and Jimmy Johnson accounted for 11 of the 19 Super Bowl victories from 1974 to 1993. They also share the distinction of having the worst records of first-season head coaches in NFL history – they didn’t win a single game.
- After his first audition, Sidney Poitier was told by the casting director, “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” It was at that moment, recalls Poitier, that he decided to devote his life to acting.
These and lots of other examples remind us that we are not alone to either publicly humiliate ourselves or fail miserably.
The challenge is, how do we learn from our mistakes in the moment we are making them so we don’t get paralyzed with shame?
Lesson one: Apologize immediately
Before doing anything else, swiftly and directly apologize for your mistake. Tell your wife you are sorry for hurting her feelings. Tell the store clerk that you really didn’t mean to walk out the door with the copy of People magazine you were scanning while waiting in line. Tell your boss you didn’t mean to call him an idiot on the conference call – you thought your phone was on mute. However you have injured or harmed someone else, say you are sorry and extend the appropriate restitution. Waiting a long time to apologize will just further anger the person you have offended and lead them to believe you have no remorse for your actions.
Lesson two: Tend to your emotions
After doing something particularly stupid, you usually feel like either laughing or crying. Both will make you feel better. So hug your sweetie, your kids or your dog. Or get some coffee with your best friend and cry on her shoulder. This will release some of your pent-up emotion so you can think rationally. Humor is the other great pressure relief. My dear blog reader Mike, after reading my public apology to Alan about word confusion, shared the following story:
A number of years ago, a friend rang me up and said she was interested about a job advertised in my company. She was looking for some general background information and so on. She told me she was going to be interviewed by my boss at the time. After the interview, I asked her how it had gone, and if she was interested in the job. She just burst out laughing. When trying to sell her on our company and how much people liked working there because we had low turnover of staff, my boss made repeated use of the term “the low rate of nutrition”. He meant, of course “attrition”. After that, my friend said she couldn’t consider working there because she’d never be able to look him in the eye without laughing. But truly, we were all very skinny at the time!
Mike’s comment made me laugh out loud. I feel for his former boss, who probably turns red whenever he recalls his mistake. That is if he realizes it – for all we know, he could still be touting the benefits of skinny employees.
Lesson three: Remember who you are
For the perfectionists among us, your mind doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between big and little mistakes. You feel the same pit in your stomach whether you misuse a word or smash into someone’s bumper because you are yacking on your cellphone. So as soon as you gain composure, remind yourself that you are generally a decent human being and are entitled to a mistake or two. I know that I would not want to get friendly with someone with no cellulite, who always sends a thank you card the day after receiving a gift and who would never consider feeding her kids potato chips for dinner. No one is that perfect.
Lesson four: Move on with a great story
Once you have apologized and gotten over the emotional impact of your mistake, move on. Take your wife out to dinner, get back in line with the same clerk who thought you were a shoplifter, return to the Monday morning meeting and look your boss in the eye, or start writing your next article. Stop beating yourself up and start formulating a great story from the lesson. These stories are what will hold you together the next time you trip up and do something foolish. And the first time your child comes to you with tears in his eyes because he made a fool of himself in public, you can quietly put him on your knee and say “You think that is stupid? When I was your age, here is what I did …”
Alan graciously accepted my apology. And I learned a great lesson.
What are your thoughts about learning from your mistakes?
I promise to put Lesson four into action and move on. But I couldn’t resist sharing the story.
Have a great weekend!