I have written nine books. Sometimes it felt like giving birth to cement blocks. I raised two boys, very nervously. I never thought I would pull that one off. I have been married for 16 years to my lovely wife Chameli and it keeps getting better. What a blessing. What a miracle. But all of that pales in comparison to my greatest accomplishment and the thing that I am really, really good at, which is making mistakes.
I take making mistakes to levels no one dreamed possible before. I managed to create awkwardness in situations where it seemed unimaginable. I have managed to create misunderstandings between people around the most utterly simple and banal things. Mistakes are my “chef’s special.”
Not only am I very accomplished at making mistakes, but I have also perfected the art over the years of making things even worse when I try to clean them up. That is the advanced level of mistake making. Just a few days ago, after many decades of successful mistake making, and apologies, and excuses that made things even worse, I had a little breakthrough and that is what I wanted to share with you today.
We have a one-year program as part of Radical Brilliance. It is small and somewhat exclusive, for professional coaches who have many years of experience working with people to be able to dive deeply into the principles of Radical Brilliance and to integrate them in their professional life. Among other things, we have three webinars a month for these coaches, with me and another teacher, using Zoom. Usually, I spend a couple of hours and practice before these calls: Meditation, Qi Gong, and other prophylactics against making mistakes that are too devastating. On that particular day, I woke up late, had a few things to complete, and cut my practice short.
You can anticipate what comes next.
I was a little stressed on the call, a little snappy, pressed for time, and I wound up cutting somebody off short and generally creating an atmosphere of impatience. It was not a huge big deal, but it generally created awkwardness. The kind for which I am famous. After the call, before there had been any consequences, I knew something had gone wrong. My breathing was tight. Thoughts were flying chaotically faster than usual, it felt like I had committed a crime, and had been caught on surveillance camera. Now it was just a matter of minutes before the police arrived.
In a rare moment of good fortune and sanity (for me), I was able to observe the way my mind moves in such a post-mistake scenario. Some of the thoughts were swarming around the idea of looking for someone else to blame: my co-teacher… the participants… the person who wrote the email I was replying to… anybody will do, to pin the blame on. Another group of thoughts were busy concocting justifiable excuses. “I work hard. I schedule amazing guests for these webinars. I do everything I can. It’s justified and somewhat inevitable that sometimes things go a little off track.” Other thoughts were hell-bent on denial. “Nothing really happened. I was just asserting healthy authority and providing firm leadership.” (Excuse me a moment, I need to throw up in my mouth remembering that). Other thoughts were composing lengthy and eloquent messages of explanation to the participants in the program. It was all just one big misunderstanding which could be justified. Finally, the Kohinoor diamond in the crown: claiming the victim position. If I could just find a way to demonstrate irrefutably how I am in fact the one being wronged here, I will regain power and control.
As I said, I was somewhat miraculously and uncharacteristically able to observe these thoughts before acting on them. Through this process of observation, I was able to actually try something quite different, which I wholeheartedly want to recommend to you today. Finally, after two or three days, I did get an email from one of the participants. It was not accusing or even blaming, just acknowledging that things had gone off track a little bit and making some very valid and wise suggestions how to avoid such an occurrence in the future. When I read the email, I honestly thought I was getting let off lightly. So I did what I have never done before. I wrote back and wholeheartedly agreed. “Yes,” I said, “you’re absolutely right. I totally fucked up. There are no excuses and no justifications. There is no way to make this look pretty, and this is nobody else’s responsibility but mine. I messed up. I let you down and I’m sorry.” Then I added a phrase which was all important to me. I said something along these lines: “I made a mistake and there’s definitely big learning in it. I have already reached out to several of my mentors / coaches to see how I can address this mistake and avoid it occurring again, but… please know that it is not your responsibility to take care of me in this. I give you my word that I will do the work I need to do within myself. I am here to serve you and you do not have any responsibility to take care of me.” Finally, I reassured my kind and gentle course participant that what is important in this situation is her well-being and the quality of her experience. It is my responsibility to do anything and everything I have to and need to to ensure she gets what she needs.
The result of sending this letter was something I have never experienced before in my life. She wrote back to me with gratitude. It appeared that her respect for me had actually increased through this circumstance rather than the other way. Her trust had gone up and above all, she was surprised… pleasantly surprised by the way that I responded to her. I learned a thing or two about making mistakes through all of this.
Just in case, like me, you are prone to making lots and lots of mistakes, here is a handy little summary of the principals I now hope to integrate into my mistake-ridden life.
1. Take full 100% responsibility. If it appears like somebody else is responsible or even shares responsibility, look for a way that you are responsible for that person’s behavior too.
2. Do not offer excuses or justifications. Just acknowledge the mistake with the phrase, “there are no excuses for this.”
3. Reassure the other person that you are committed to attending to the circumstances that led up to this, but also reassure them that they are not responsible for taking care of you.
4. Lean into what you do not know more than what you do. When you emphasize your awareness of ignorance in blind spots and your willingness to look more deeply, you become — ironically — more wise and trustworthy. If you sound like you know exactly what happened, you appear knowledgeable, but mostly to yourself and not so much to other people.
I feel quite transformed by my latest little foray into the endless world of mistake making, and I am eagerly anticipating making many more mistakes on a regular basis for the rest of my life. But I also hope to learn how to do so with transparency and a learner’s disposition.
What about you? Do you make mistakes too? I’d love to hear your news.