Years ago I made a bad calculation in my first marketing position. That mistake cost a struggling nonprofit thousands of dollars that it really didn’t have.
I couldn’t get over my error for a long time. In the moment I scrambled to find a “fix” but there really was none.
This is the first time I’ve spoken about this mistake in public because it rocked me so much. I was so embarrassed. I felt so guilty. And I also felt like there was very little I could do to fix my mistake. What’s done was done.
I’m sharing it today because I think it’s important that you know that even though I’ve moved forward building a career I really, really love, I haven’t always had a perfect, error-free go of it. Far from it. So today I’m sharing what I learned from one of my lowest career points.
Everyone makes mistakes at one point or another. You are not exempt--even if you try really hard. So go ahead and mentally prepare in advance for the time in the future when you will mess up. If you have a perfect record thus far, you probably have not been entrusted with much. So remember, that person that you admire so much for his or her career? They’ve definitely made mistakes. They’ve been embarrassed. They’ve cost someone else money or value. But it’s important to recognize that they moved forward. They moved on, learned from their mistakes, and added value for their clients and team in jobs after that one.
When it comes to making a big decision with a vendor or client on behalf of your company, if you are at all doubtful about your decision, double-check with leadership. You’ve been entrusted with tasks that your supervisor believes you can handle. Some leaders like to have a finger on the pulse of everything happening in the department they manage, and others would rather empower their people to make decisions. And still others have so much to manage, they have to entrust some decision-making to subordinates. If you are tasked with a decision that you don’t feel full confidence about, take the time to “bother” your busy supervisor. You may not want to. You may feel like it makes you look less competent or less confident. But the truth is, the discomfort you feel double-checking with leadership will be way less than the discomfort you will feel when you have to report a mistake you’ve made.
Don’t let mistakes define you. You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s easy to feel like making a big mistake on the job is a career-defining moment. Remember, there is a big difference between saying “I failed” and saying “I’m a failure.” Yes, you can swim in your sorrow about said mistake for a little while. That’s understandable. But you have to decide at some point to get back up, recognize that everyone has made a mistake at some point, and move forward. I remember getting congratulated on a job well done for my work in that marketing job by people who didn't know about my mistake. I felt like a fraud. But the truth is, what they appreciated about the work I did was true. I did do good work. The mistake I made didn't cancel out the good work I did. And it took me a long time to realize that. Your mistake does not define you. How you respond and learn and grow does.
When you make a mistake, own it. Passing blame will just amplify your error. Often times it’s much more comfortable to blame a mistake on someone else. “My superior should have given me more information.” “The vendor should have flagged it when they saw the order was unusual.” “My colleague should have…” None of these responses are helpful after the error has been made. And none of them help you avoid making similar errors in the future. Blaming others shows weakness--not courage. So when you realize you’ve made a mistake, own it. Apologize. And offer solutions to rectify the situation. Passing blame just makes an embarrassing situation more shameful.
After you make a mistake, learn from it. A mistake’s only value is teaching you something that you can implement in the future. So ask yourself, “What could I have done differently?” Review the entire scenario from start to finish. Journal about it. You may even write a full After Action Report like a military general. How will you choose to let this lesson impact your future decisions? Find the value in the bad situation by identifying your takeaways moving into the future.
Making mistakes on the job hurts. You can’t go back and change the past once the experience occurs. But you can take stock in what happened, learn from it, and move forward with courage. In my situation, I had trouble shaking it off. But over time as I learned lessons and experienced more wins, the pain of failing became more removed and now I can use it as a way to connect with others and encourage them. How can you move forward after failing and help someone else?
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