FLYNN: Mea culpa

This week I made a mistake. I sent a document to a client and attached the wrong version of a form to go to participants for an upcoming workshop. The workshop manager distributed the form, and of the participant called to question the form, and rightly so.

It wasn’t a big mistake and it was easy to correct. There were no real consequences since we discovered the issue in plenty of time to get the right form to participants. However, the manager who had emailed the document to participants was clearly upset with me and sent me a subtle but clear email to that effect. In her mind, my mistake reflected on her because SHE was the one who sent it out. Never mind that she sent out the material without looking at it.

I owned my mistake. To me, this wasn’t a big issue. To her, taking ownership of our collective mistake was a big deal. According to her, she doesn’t make mistakes like that.

This got me to thinking a bit about mistakes. Why is it that most of us find it so difficult to (1) admit to our mistakes, (2) own our mistakes, and perhaps most important (3) learn from our mistakes. I see it every day with people in my client organizations and with my students. Rather than simply saying “mea culpa” (through my fault, to those of you who came along after Latin was a required class in junior high school), energy goes into blaming, finger pointing, disowning and deflecting -- even with small mistakes.

In the ‘70s, I discovered writer Hugh Prather. Though he was in that genre of pop philosophers that included Rod McKuen (I know, I’m dating myself here), I’ve always found his simple wisdom pretty powerful. In “Notes to Myself,” he wrote:

“My fear of making a mistake seems to be based on the hidden assumption that I am potentially perfect and that if I can just be very careful I will not fall from heaven. But a ‘mistake’ is a declaration of the way I am, a jolt to the way I intend, a reminder I am not dealing with the facts. When I have listened to my mistakes I have grown.”

While I am certainly not advocating mistakes as a way of life, I do think we need to pay more attention to our mistakes and to our reaction to them. This week I think that I have grown a bit, yet again. The mistake caused me to think about the pace of my life right now and how trying to multitask and do things quickly probably did lead to my error. What mistake do you need to own? What can you learn from it?

Jan Flynn teaches at the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University.