What I’ve Learned from My Most Embarrassing Professional Mistake
Early in my career, I made an embarrassing mistake. I disagreed with a client and fired off a hasty email to their CFO. Rather than just stating my concerns in the message, however, I let my emotions get the best of me. My email sounded like an upset child wrote it, not a professional. As soon as I hit send, I knew I’d made a mistake. When the CFO wrote back and rightly called me out on this tone, I was mortified.
Even all these years later, there’s a part of me that wants to bury this memory deep in a locked drawer and throw away the key. But rather than hiding from this mistake, I’ve used it to grow professionally. Whenever I’m tempted to dash off a message in haste, I tap into this memory, take a deep breath, and take my hands off the keyboard!
I like to think of our professional memories as “success proof points.” That big presentation you nailed, a major promotion, the first client you landed– these proof points become a constellation of professional success in our heads. Of course, life isn’t all jazz hands. Recalling the embarrassing moments and mistakes can help drive even greater success. When something goes wrong, I find it helpful to remember that I’ve made it through other challenges – including being called out by the CFO over my email – and I’ve come out even stronger on the other side.
As I write this, the December holidays are upon us and we’re already looking towards the new year. It’s a time to celebrate our successes but also to reflect. Here’s how I’m looking back and using my “success proof points” to get ready for 2022:
- Embrace the mistakes. You can’t improve if you don’t acknowledge you need improvement. Think back over the last year– there’s probably a cringe-worthy moment, like my CFO email exchange, that you’d also like to bury forever. Tap into the emotions you feel around this mistake. What lessons have you learned going forward? How can you use the emotional memory of this mistake to help you be more effective in the future?
- Acknowledge you can’t control everything all the time. This one is hard for me– I like to be on top of everything as much as possible! Diligence and dedication are two traits I greatly value, and I never want clients to feel that they can’t reach me or that I can’t help them. Of course, it’s never possible to do everything for everyone all the time. This reminder was front and center on a recent dream vacation to Paris.
My husband and I had just clinked champagne glasses on the Eiffel Tower when I got a message that a major deal was falling apart. Before firing off a quick email, I took a moment to pause and consider the best course of action. What could I do in that moment to make a difference? I emailed a colleague for support and sent a quick reply to my client that I’d be following up at a specific time later that day. I did everything I could and then I put my concerns in a box and focused on enjoying this special moment with my husband.
The strategy I used here – time boxing – has been helpful throughout my career, and especially in the last two years. With so many unknowns and so much changing rapidly, the one constant is focusing on what’s within my control. And to do this successfully, it starts with acknowledging what I can’t control in the moment.
- Identify your blind spots. When you reflect on your year, is it just a “greatest hits” highlight reel? I love making a mental map of success proof points from these highlights, but this map won’t be complete without the lower moments, too. Is there a common theme to some of these mistakes? For example, maybe you dislike conflict so you avoid having difficult conversations, causing issues to fester. Or maybe you’re a bit too confident in your opinions and struggle to see other perspectives. These blind spots are just that – we often don’t realize how they’re impacting our work performance until we take a moment to reflect and see the bigger picture.As part of my own “recharge and reflect” time this year, I’m challenging myself to be truly honest about my blind spots. I’m also asking the people who know me best to share their perspectives, including my husband and close work colleagues. After all, we can’t learn and grow if we stay blind to our mistakes.
I’d love to hear more about how you use the memory of past mistakes to be even more effective. What’s your secret to bouncing back?