Mea Culpa and Risktakes

Originally published on Dec 6th, 2010

My head has always been in the clouds.  “Lots of intelligence, ” comforted my avuncular figures.  “Dufus, ” quipped my classmates.    Either way this trait has a some big problems in day-to-day life.  In my first job in New York City, I awoke at 4:30 am to catch the 1 train to South Ferry Station.  Thereupon ride the Staten Island Ferry, alight and catch the train to Huguenot station.  All to get to my job by 7 am.  The opportunity for errors for this absent-minded hayseed in mid ’90s New York were opportune.

It wasn’t too long before I bolted from my apartment without my wallet.  This particular morning, I had one token and 50 cents so I didn’t notice until the Staten Island train.  That is where I usually bought my roll of tokens (no metrocards or credit cards those days).  I was stunned when I reached for my wallet.   There was no way to get to my job or even to get back home.  There was no cell phone either, so I had no way to tell my employer I would be late.  Me, the drunks, and the pidgeons on Staten Island at 6 am. Gulp!

Scrambling I realized that I had some stamps in my bag.  Maybe the post office would take them back and give me enough so that I could get work.  No way.

I pleaded.  The commuters shuffled and moaned.

“Uh, come on man. I didn’t even lick them.  I need to get to work and I have no money.”

The pin-striped suited man behind me took pity.  “Here kid.”  And gave me enough to get to work.

This is called a mistake. An error.  A lapse.   And it would have cost me my job but for the kindness of strangers.  It is also an opportunity to learn.  I could never forget again.  Uh huh.  Or I could mitigate my tendencies.  So I pinned two tokens to the inside of my jacket.  I could always get to work or home.

This started a deepening realization that I make mistakes.  Yeah, turns out I am not perfect.  With this nugget of wisdom in hand, I  keep checks on my work and look to improve everywhere.   It also started a practice where I add to a Mea Culpa list every week.  This list has the mistakes or errors I think happened over the preceding week.

The important part here is two-fold.  First is that you have a chance to forgive yourself and get it off of your chest.  The real benefit comes when you review this list 6 months on and 1 year on.  Three things jump from the page.

1) that wasn’t a mistake, it was a risktake (more on that).

2) a thread connects the recurring errors and makes them much easier to address.

3) a realization comes upon you how much you are changing — that is priceless.

Vineet Nayar, of HCL Technlogies picked up on this practice from a comment I made on his HBR blog post, The Power of Making Mistakes. He writes well about what can be gained when we make mistakes and errors.   Mr. Nayar subsequently developed comments from his post into The Power of Risktakes.

It is important t0 develop a boundary between a mistake and risktake.  His post and the comments do that well. In short, you can take a risk and it fails. That is a risktake, not a mistake.  Keep in mind though that in the aftermath such a distinction may not be clear — or even that something went wrong.  Write it down.  Leave it alone and come back to it.   It will leaven and give you meaning.

“A mistake becomes a screw-up when you don’t learn from it,” my grandfather told me while we drove back from rough day surveying in hills of southern Ohio.  Well, I’ve done a whole lotta learnin’.

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  1. […] my hands dirty.”  I expect the inevitable scrapes, bumps and oversights.   As I’ve written about failure before, I actually welcome the experience warts and all.  And thankful it’s […]



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