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Mistakes and Pains

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Somewhere in the mosh pit of memory, I still recall a recast of sportswriter Grantland Rice’s famous verse:

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes not that you won or lost –

But who gets the blame. [i]

I jokingly recounted this verse hundreds of times as a younger, much wittier man.  And yes, I definitely recall being wittier.  Nowadays, however, when I think of this little poem, I simply fret and scratch my head. For me, the closing line's twist has become too true to be funny, especially when I consider the Great Scorer making marks against the names of many of today’s policymakers, industry moguls, and reality-TV stars.

I am not sure why America’s storytelling compass has strayed so far from the young George Washington’s axe, Honest Abe’s three mile walk over a six-cent error, or Harry Truman’s buck-stopping desk plate, other than the fact that moral fiber is just plain boring.  In the world of Judge Judy litigation, the curated personal brands of Instagram stars, and Dr. Phil's insights into the chronic discomfort of cognitive dissonance, it seems rarer and rarer that people admit mistakes. Even I have come to understand that a combative, double-down denial of a mistake demonstrates more strength, righteousness, and high-brow entertainment than staid, old integrity seems to offer.

On the flip side, I too find it hard not to jump on a viral bandwagon to publicly shame some poor Schmo from Bugtussle, KY, for a lapse in judgment or the grand design of an eighth-grade education.[ii]  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe in an educated society’s right to stand against wrongs that violate fairness, civility, and DC Comics storylines as much as the next person.  And I fully understand accountability – particularly, self-accountability.  But I do lament the accountability of the less-than-informed mob.

In part, my belief in humanity’s higher nature has, over the years, prompted me to teach young folks entering the workforce my “Grand Theory of Mistakes.” Admittedly, I usually teach them to their chagrin.  And because of that, I will now subject you, dear reader, to my beloved theory.  It goes like this:

Treasure your mistakes, revel in your failures, and hold every screw-up precious and dear.  In the end, your failings will be all you have. Nearly everything you do in your career you consider smart, outstanding, or exceedingly wonderful will be belittled, criticized, or credited to someone else (often, that “someone else” being the very same belittler who was denying you credit to begin with).  But there’s hope.  That’s because you can bet your lifetime collection of trophies, medals, and exceptional performance awards that those same naysayers and critics will put light-years between themselves and you when it comes to your mistakes, thoughtfully leaving you to enjoy your personal failures in peace and solitude.

Now, while that might be one way of beating optimism out of the younger, starry-eyed generations, it is NOT an endorsement for disregarding mistakes, and certainly not a call for those just starting out in professional life to seek failure.  Rather, the most successful people I know use their failures as stepping stones to achievement.  In one of my first jobs, I joined an organization that advised me, a new hire, “dare to be elite.” The marching order was liberating. My work was important and meaningful, and, if I dared, there was nothing I could not do.  The down side of daring, however, is that sometimes you crash and burn.  Eventually my mentors also taught me that mistakes happen; you're going to fall down and get beaten up; you just need to avoid the CEM (a.k.a., career-ending mistake).  

Thinking it through, I realized this rationale reflected the way extreme sports stars achieve mastery.  XS champions proudly count their scars.  They tell brave tales about crashing bikes, face-planting into crusty snowbanks, and tombstoning after charging waves they had no business riding.  Bumps, bruises, and broken bones are part of their learning process.  The true key to their success is not breaking a neck.

With that in mind, here are some rules of thumb implicit in that advice, and which can help mistakes from becoming fatal:

  1. Admit the mistake and take ownership.  Often, a failure alone does not make a CEM.  What does, however, is hiding a mistake, lying about it, looking for someone else to blame, or making excuses.  While CYA may be new school, old-school self-accountability is still a winning strategy.  Admit when you're wrong, and do it early before you're forced to admit a mistake under duress. 

  2. Work to correct the mistake.  While apologies are important, more important are genuine efforts to mitigate and rectify the error.  While some mistakes cannot be easily fixed or turned back, a non-apology apology coupled with walking away from a mistake is worse.  It’s not only lazy, undignified, and bad form to walk away from your mistakes, it’s plain wrong.  If you’re questioning this assertion, consider how nonpology and failing to make amends not only hurts others, but keeps the fauxpologist from moving on.  

  3. Learn from the mistake.  Depending on the nature of the mistake, striving to correct it can teach intangibles such as humility, empathy, and sincerity, often in the form of “I sincerely will try to avoid doing this again.” A mistake handled nobly can provide a quick path to introspection and self-awareness.  If we look hard enough, we often can identify faulty thought processes, biases, assumptions, or behaviors that not only caused the problem, but also could lead to other mistakes down the road. Deriving lessons from failure is prescriptive.  It is how we become wiser, and, if not wiser, we can at least avoid making the same mistakes over and over.  Most important, this is how people put mistakes behind them and move to higher ground.  When life gives you wormwood, make absinthe.

In the end, people tend to be forgiving of individuals who follow these rules.  Needless to say, the underlying assumption here is that any mistake in question was born of good intentions from the outset... no matter how misguided it may have seemed in retrospect.  If there is no sign of noble intent, all bets are off when it comes to goodwill and mulligans.  People are usually smart enough to suss out deviousness, meanness, unabated selfishness, and other less-than-honorable motives.  In the end, the best way to survive and learn from our mistakes is to behave nobly from the start… long before we make them.  Truth, courage, and kindness.  That’s really how everyone should play the game.


[i]   For the life of me, I have no idea where I originally heard this bastardized verse of Rice’s poem Alumni Football, but I am pretty sure I was a kid, and I am certain that neither I nor any of my friends were clever enough to make it up all by ourselves. 

[ii]  Again, don't listen to me, but for a thoughtful look at the dark side of social media justice, check out Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015), Riverhead Books, Penguin Random House LLC, NY, New York.  It's a good, entertaining read.

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