Just a few months ago, this happened to me. Looking back it seems so trivial and silly, but at the time it wasn’t. The sweating, the not being able to sleep, the mental roller coaster – it was all very real, however seemingly unnecessary.
The situation was this: it was late at night and we were using technology for our online ticket sales for senior week for the first time. Here was a chance for me to show my ability to innovate to make positive change in my new role. The system crashed. My inbox was immediately flooded with angry and confused emails. I took them personally, too personally. Here I was at 11pm on a Monday sitting at my kitchen table feverishly typing away. No sooner did I decide to email the class and tell them we would try again tomorrow, the server that had crashed switched back on and tickets were sold out. To say students were upset would be an understatement.
I was physically ill. I had just been in my new position as director for 4 months. This was my first interaction with many of these students and their last experience at our institution. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was unnerved by the fact that there was nothing I could do to fix this and come up with a solution RIGHT NOW. I wanted a quick fix and I was not going to rest until this had been resolved.
Racing through my head were all sorts of overly dramatic and unrealistic scenarios of students taking over my office space or emailing the President’s office. I was fearing the worst and that worst was what was keeping me up and making me sick.
Long story short, I did what I do best – I adapted and came up with a creative solution grounded in making sure our students had a positive experience. The next day, I went into fixer mode, doing what I do best by working under pressure. The solution worked and my inbox was again flooded with emails of appreciation. Here’s the thing – the solution was not rocket science. In fact, I had solved much bigger problems, even a crisis before including an artist not showing up to our major event just weeks before. As a professional, I pride myself most on my ability to innovatively problem solve. Why is it that I could not remind myself of that enough to alleviate much of my worry on this particular occasion?
After much reflection, I can’t figure out why this was different. I have never been this affected by something so small, let alone at work. I am always the strong one, with positivity as his top strength, who others look to in situations like this. Perhaps it was the pressure of a new job, baby on the way, and building a home that added up and decided to rear its head that night. Perhaps I was worried that this would significantly impact how others viewed me at my new institution. Others’ perceptions of me have always been something that matter to me, but it had never affected me like this. Perhaps it was something more serious. Whatever happened, this situation has taught me a real lot about myself and how to ease my anxiety when future situations like this arise, because they surely will. Here are a few of the lessons I learned that will hopefully help you if you are ever paralyzed by failure:
I am, without a shadow of a doubt, my own worst critic: If this is true for you, you need to own it. Know when you are worried about something or when you make a mistake, that others may not take it to be as bad as you do. Do not let that inner critic be the strongest voice. Find others who help build you up when something goes wrong. My supervisor was that person for me in this situation.
Our failures do not define us: Mistakes happen. The sum of your work is always greater than one mistake. One mistake or failure will not define you. In the story of your life, a failure might be a chapter, a page, or even a sentence. It will never be the whole story. Remembering this gives me solace.
Everyone makes mistakes: This is so simple, yet so important. Not that it makes it any easier, but no one you work with is perfect. You won’t be the only one who fails. This is also very important to remember as a colleague or supervisor when others fail. We all need to be patient and flexible with each other.
How you respond after failure is key: How you fix or solve the problem is how you will be remembered. Let the same energy that caused you to get so worried and upset about what would happen fuel your desire to solve or fix the problem. Reflecting and learning from that failure is also essential.
Not everything can be fixed immediately: Sometimes there is truth and power in the statement “There is nothing I can do right now.” If I would have remembered that, I would have slept that night. We live in an immediate society where everything needed to be done yesterday. Oftentimes, the most important decisions take time. Don’t rush foolishly into reacting to a failure.
It’s ok to get upset when you fail: I am thankful for this experience. It was the first time since I was a new professional that something work related caused me to get this upset. I was more upset with my failure to appropriately deal with my failure than I was the failure itself. In fact, the problem was out of my hands entirely. Be easy on yourself. Some situations will cause you to get upset. Getting further upset by your response will just make it worse and inhibit your ability to learn and problem solve.
Own what you can, release what you can’t: I did not cause the server to crash. I sent the email that told students we would revisit the next day. I did not know the server was back on as that email was sent causing tickets to be sold out. The situation was not my fault, but it was my problem. There is a big difference there. It is easier to solve a problem than it is to address failure. Learn to look at your failures as problems that can be solved. The reframing of that has helped me in recent situations where mistakes can be fixed. When failure happens and there is nothing that can be fixed you need to own it, learn from it, apologize if necessary, and make sure it does not happen again.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Kristen Abell on #SACommits