A person has stepped in chewing gum and it's stuck to their boot in the middle of a road. Image: Gratisography

I made a mistake.

It was 2017 and I had just produced a coffee table book of my spouse’s photographs. We were operating on one income at the time—and a dismal nonprofit one at that—but we had still decided to bankroll the first run ourselves because we were so proud of what he had accomplished.

A proof came back from the printer and I noticed the transparency on the introduction page was a little too dark, so I pulled up the page in InDesign, fixed the transparency, saved the page and republished the file… with the layers in the wrong order.

The result was that I sent the book to the printers without the introduction that explained the book’s entire reason for existing, the project that spawned it, and the details readers needed to make sense of the rest of the book.

I was mortified. I still am deeply sorry. I’m no longer married, which might be related, but I’ve never messed up a layered file since.

Why embracing our mistakes makes us better

I’ve been reading Shane Rodgers‘ book Worknado, about the attributes of people he has seen thrive in modern workplaces, and it’s got me thinking about the power of embracing our mistakes. Vulnerability is not without risk but owning your own shortcomings can be a superpower in work cultures where learning is valued.

In my field of tech, there’s an adage: Fail fast. It recognizes that failures are a normal—even necessary—part of the innovation process. The key is not to throw good money (or time, or resources) after bad. Try a range of things, quickly, and throw out what doesn’t work.

Companies have begun to embrace “idea funerals,” where teams collectively recognize projects that weren’t successful. And in some cities, you can attend a Fuckup Night and share your biggest fumbles in what must be a very cathartic group of total strangers.

How to own up gracefully

There’s actually no secret sauce to owning your mistakes in a corporate setting. The main thing is to step up, show up, and own your mistake and the chain of events that led to it. (Or, in the case of team leads, own your responsibility.)

In such a litigious society, we have plenty of models for nonapology. We all know the weasel words often painstakingly chosen by public figures to seem like contrition while actually saying not much:

“Mistakes were made.”
“If anyone was offended…”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

That’s clearly not the way. So how can you find the appropriate words and forum to recognize your mistake? Here are a few tips, from someone who has had to eat humble pie more than a few times in her career.

  1. Target your message to your audience. If your boss or team need to know, bring it up at an appropriate meeting. If the whole company or department should be aware, you might need two messages. For example, there might be details your boss should know that you’d leave out of an all-company Slack.
  2. Show care toward those harmed. If your mistake has made a mess for a particular person or team (ie: HR or customer service), bring them in early in the process. Find out what they need to do their jobs well and offer to help wherever you can. 
  3. Reframe your guilt. This is not about you, it’s about your organization. Focus on what you need to say to help your organization learn what it must and move forward (which might be different from what will assuage your discomfort the fastest).

We can’t choose when we mess up but we can choose to face up to what it teaches us and choose to improve the way we work.