Let me set the scene for you. It’s a few days before Christmas, my husband and I are en route to visit family in our home state of Indiana. It’s a long haul from North Dakota, so we stop over at a hotel for the night. I’d worked in the car to finish up a graphic design piece for a client—a piece that I’d assured them I’d submit that night. The holiday traffic was brutal, we ended up getting to our hotel late—well after business hours.
I open my lap top, it searches for wifi but comes up empty. Again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Nothing. I go to the front desk. The college student working tells me their wifi is shotty, but she’ll restart the router. She does, but nothing happens. She says it’s almost always like that and there’s nothing else she can do.
I have rage boiling in my soul. I’m angry at the hotel. I’m angry at myself. Why did I ever think I could take a project on the road? Why did I ever think I could step away from my office? Then the guilt pours in. I’m a terrible person. I made a promise and I can’t keep it. I’m a bad business person. I’ve lost my integrity. I’m unprofessional. I’m no good at my job. The world is ending. I’ll never have another client.
I literally cried in the shower that night.
The next morning I called my client and explained what had happened and apologized profusely. I told him I’d send it as soon as I could. His response? “Oh, I forgot you said you’d send it yesterday. No big deal. Just send it whenever you get a chance.”
This shower cryer felt very sheepish. I had totally freaked out and the client didn’t even notice the mistake. This incident was the final straw for me. Shortly after I decided that too much sanity and productivity was being squandered on perfection. I was so focused on doing a good job, I was holding myself to the impossible standard of perfection. After a mistake (whether big or small) I’d be nervous about going back to work—worried that I’d make another mistake, let someone down, look unprofessional…I was fed up—and maybe you are too. Here are six truths I’ve learned about making mistakes—and the freedom that comes with accepting imperfection.
1. You have a right to be imperfect. An elephant cannot elect to have smooth skin, a puppy cannot choose its breed, people cannot opt out of imperfection—it’s just the way we are born. Imperfection is within all of us, and it cannot be changed. It’s your right as a human being to be imperfect. Expect imperfection from yourself and your customers. Understanding this will allow you to be freehanded with forgiveness—to your employees, your customers and yourself. When you accept imperfection as a fact and a right, you’ll be free to make a mistake and move on quickly.
2.Everyone—even me, even you—has the inalienable right to forget. No one can recall everything they’ve ever been told or everything they’ve ever leaned. That is a fact. Since it’s impossible to remember everything—we all have the right to forget some things, sometimes. Even things that are important get forgotten or overlooked on occasion. It happens to everyone. Take measures to remember important dates, times, and details. Write things down. Be organized. Ask questions when you need to. But forgetfulness will happen from time to time. You have a right to forget, accept it, move on and make things right.
3. Some errors are unavoidable. Some circumstances cannot be influenced or predicted—like bad hotel wifi or an accident on the highway that backed up traffic. When I fully understood that sometimes errors were truly not my fault, I was able stop being hard of myself for things beyond my control. I stopped playing the “if-only” game. “If only I’d done the project before leaving home.” “If only we’d booked a different hotel.” You get the idea. If-onlys only slow us down and stir up negativity.
4. Mistakes feel biggest to you. When someone forgets something or makes a mistake that affects me, I’m usually not angry. Typically I am empathetic, I can relate, I easily forgive—in short, it’s just not a big deal. I understand that others aren’t perfect and have the right to make mistakes. However, if I’ve made the mistake I think it’s a huge, unforgivable offense that can never be fully atoned for. Evidence is in my example above. It’s so easy to forgive and understand other’s imperfection and so hard to forgive our own. Remember that imperfections seem biggest to you—and stop sacrificing productivity and self esteem to self loathing, anger and fretting over mistakes.
5. Over apologizing makes things worse. In the past when I’d make a mistake, I’d worry about being perceived as “unprofessional.” When a mistake occurred, I’d be overcome with grief and regret. I’d open an email with an apology and end with another apology. I’d text and reiterate the apology at our next meeting. I was sorry and I wanted them to understand that. A mentor later pointed out to me that over apologizing actually has the opposite effect. When I repeated my apology over and over—the only impression I was giving off was that I couldn’t let things go. I seemed unconfident and unsure of myself. Remember, a mistake is usually bigger to you than the person affected. After you apologize, they’ll likely understand and move on. If you keep bringing it up, you are only causing your client to dwell on something they’ve already moved on from, and preventing efficient progress in your business relationship.
6. Make things right and move on. After a mistake it’s important to get back on track. Man up and admit that you have erred, be honest. Sincerely apologize and recognize how your mistake led to an inconvenience. Decide how to make it right—submit the file the next day, offer a free service, fix a mistake at no cost, etc. Carry out this plan and then let go. Once you’ve done this, it’s up to your customer to accept your amends. The ball is in their court. Remember, you have the right to forget and the right to be imperfect. No one can take that away.
Accepting imperfection gave me the freedom to make mistakes without losing confidence or productivity in my work. By no means am I encouraging you to be sloppy or to offer poor service. Work with integrity and passion. Do your very best, but remember that perfection is an impossible and unhealthy standard. It’s my hope that you’ll gain freedom today by accepting that you, and everyone else, are imperfect.