A few years ago, I did a major closet-cleaning.
At the bottom of a box, I found a speeding ticket. I got this ticket in 1999. There it was in this old box, a photo of me, driving peacefully along at the flow of traffic at College and Drake, paying no attention to my speed. But I did see the flash at the side of the road, and I knew I’d been had.
I got proof a few days later when the ticket arrived in my mailbox. I don’t remember what the fine was, but I remember being mightily upset about it.
I paid the fine. I learned not to go through that intersection without watching my speed. And I completely forgot about the ticket until I cleaned out my closet a few years ago.
So no big deal.
We all get traffic tickets, we forget doctor appointments and we make embarrassing typos on Facebook.
We feel shaken to the core by our mistakes, we pay our dues, and we take our lessons to heart and build new habits.
Then we forget about the incident.
That seems like a healthy way to deal with mistakes.
But what about the mistakes we make in public? In a publication? Or on social media?
When our work goes public, mistakes move to a whole different level.
Not only do such mistakes make us feel defective, but they embarrass us in front of the world. They can affect our confidence, reputations and even livelihoods. They can affect the people we most aim to serve.
In my 30+ years in publishing and web work, I’ve made plenty of mistakes.
So today, I’d just like to share a few tips I’ve learned along the way (sometimes the hard way).
Don’t act just yet. Don’t react from fear and defensiveness. Don’t judge. Just breathe. Feel what you feel.
Don’t blame or apologize until you’ve taken this pause.
Then, assess the damage.
What happened? What are the details? What led up to it? What was the result?
Who has been hurt?
What was your role in it?
If you can, be neutral, or ask a good friend who has your best interest at heart to give you constructive feedback. How does it look to them? Would they notice? Would they feel hurt? What would they need from you?
Acknowledge the mistake.
Speak to any hurt parties. Acknowledge your mistake and any pain you may have caused.
I’m a big believer in apology and admitting mistakes.
But also be smart about it. Don’t over-apologize or apologize for more than you are actually responsible for. And be careful about apologizing to people or groups you don’t trust or you believe might use your apology against you.
If it’s appropriate to apologize, be brief.
Or commit to doing what you can to make amends. Communicate your intentions to the people or audience who may have been hurt.
Ask: What can be done to avoid this mistake in the future?
Talk about how you and anyone else can avoid the same mistake in the future. Put any new systems in place that will help you remember. If you’re a publisher, add a note to your style guide.
Let it go.
And if you’re a conscientious, sensitive communicator, this could be the hardest part! But the sooner you can move on and be your usual, well-intended self, the sooner others will forgive and forget a momentary blunder.
And finally, know you’re not alone. People make mistakes every day, have made mistakes all through history, and will continue to make mistakes.
Karla McLaren makes a good point in her blog post on Embracing guilt and shame:
To be guiltless means to be free of mark or experience, as if you’re a blank slate. It’s not a sign of intelligence or growth, because guiltlessness exists only in people who have not yet lived.
So you deserve kudos. You have lived. Be kind to yourself.
By the way, the speeding ticket I found in my closet? I’m pretty sure I threw that away. But if I happen to find it, I’ll be sure to post it here!