January 13, 2016
We say these words when a friend or loved-one screws up, but “It happens to the best of us” sounds like a lie when the screw-up is oneself. In my professional life, I’m frankly used to patting myself on the back, not kicking myself in the keister. Last week, there was a keister day that had me repeating “It happens to the best of us” like a mantra while my brand new Fitbit recorded a racing heart.
I don’t often screw up, but this one was a doozy. An important client contacted me about a major snafu—why did a particular publication say “X” instead of “Y”? I confidently responded that “X” had been the direction the publication team had decided upon, and I asserted I had an audiotape of a conference call to back that up. I offered to transcribe the relevant portion of the call. The client asked me to do so. The transcript, once prepared, showed that I had misinterpreted the team’s decision. Ouch. And hence the publication proclaimed “X,” when it should have said “Y,” and tens of thousands of copies had to be reprinted. Double, triple, quadruple ouch.
Nothing brings out our inner defensive teenager so fast as a mistake that will cost money. When the client and I spoke about the error, I couldn’t help pointing out that the publication team, plus the organization’s executives, had reviewed the piece with the costly error multiple times, and no one caught it. But I’ve worked as an editor and writer for thirty-five years. I know better than anyone that the eyes see what the brain expects them to see, not what is actually staring one in the face. And so, there you go. A major F-up traceable directly to yours truly.
The day of this crisis, as my heart thumped out a disco beat, I tried to find silver linings. At least the Fitbit was ticking off extra time in the fat-burn zone. My husband shook his head and patted me on the back, reminding me that everyone makes mistakes. Then he pointed out that an elevated heart rate doesn’t count as exercise when you’re huddled in the corner gnawing your fingers.
Something similar happened when I was much younger: a music textbook I shepherded through production had to be reprinted because of a major layout mistake. In this case I hadn’t made the error but I had failed to catch it, which was my main job at the time. My boss, normally an easy-going guy, was pissed. He did not say, “It happens to the best of us.” Instead he railed, “How could you let this happen?” Oddly, I don’t recall any self-flagellation, perhaps because the boss took care of the whipping. This time, the client has (so far) been exceedingly forgiving. Maybe they realize that I feel like the guy who steered the Titanic into an iceberg, or maybe they’re too busy feeling that way themselves.
A week has passed since the dreadful snafu, and with time has come perspective. “Everybody makes mistakes.” When my husband said that to me, he echoed the comfort I’d given him a couple months ago, when he made a costly error at his job. We tell our daughter all the time that she shouldn’t ever be afraid of making mistakes, because everyone makes them. Mistakes happen to the best of us, and the best of us don’t dwell on the fact we’ve made them, but we learn from them. One week out from my big-time screw-up, I see it as an opportunity to hit the reset button and reorganize my work life and priorities. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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