There are moments when you mess up in your career, and you realize it right away. You know what I mean – you accidentally hit “reply all” on a snarky response (not good), you say something you think is funny (and it’s not), or you print a publication with a massive typo in the first line. These are the things you notice – things you can point to – and the things you can fix either with an apology, by shrugging it off, or by reprinting 200 copies of a handout (you know you’ve done it).
Then there are the things it takes you years to realize, and only after many cycles and episodes does it finally hit you – like a bolt of lightening. These are the #SAFailsForward moments, the ones that change you forever.
I’ve always been a hard worker. As a young professional, I was hard-wired to run 100 miles an hour straight ahead, making massive lists and setting goals like mad. More often than not, I would accomplish these goals, and then start setting more. I loved the feeling of accomplishment – and quite frankly, I’m really good at it.
What I am not good at – AT ALL – is stopping and reflecting on how experiences or moments have impacted me as a person or a professional. Logically, I know reflection is critical for development – but it requires something that I was never comfortable with. I hated feedback, and after years of hitting the wall, I finally figured out why.
I was obsessed with perfection. My lists had to be completely checked off. Every detail had to be perfect. I used every kind of planning system imaginable to accomplish tasks more quickly and efficiently. Any error was overly-scrutinized, and I’d beat myself up about it for weeks. While mistakes never stopped me from trying again, I would work SO FREAKING HARD to make things perfect, that I would exhaust myself. My second year out of graduate school, I was working 14 hour days. At my next job, I “improved” and got that down to 12 hour days.
In order to protect myself from negativity, and to maintain my perceived levels of productivity and good work, I would actively avoid feedback. I was so afraid to hear the things that were wrong with a program, event or project, that I would over-plan every detail, or be overly-critical of any tiny thing that went wrong. My self-evaluations were unusually harsh, and any assessment results I received about a program I would make sure to grab first so that I could beat myself up about it behind the scenes. I would front load my conversations with my supervisors with all of the bad things about a program in order to avoid hearing negative feedback from them. I never saw these moments as development opportunities; I saw them as moments where I had to be on the offensive, or I would get fired.
What I didn’t understand was that I was working hard to avoid taking a hard look at myself. When I finally accepted that feedback wasn’t the enemy, but rather a gift given to you by people who care, I was able to finally listen. After talking to my trusted friends and colleagues, and actually listening to what they said, I finally realized I was so obsessed with perfection, I forgot to be good. I thought that if anyone saw a tiny mistake before I did, or provided me with constructive feedback about my own performance before I was able to recognize it in myself, I had failed. I had constricted myself to a world where I could only win or lose.
As I’ve grown in my life and career, I’ve adopted the philosophy that feedback is a good thing, that it truly is a gift others give to you, and that these insights into who I am, how I’m performing and what I can change are so incredibly beneficial. The people who give me feedback are mirrors – causing me to reflect in genuine and intentional ways – and helping me change for the better.
Recently, my friend, mentor and colleague, Dr. Kathy Collins, posted the following:
“I never lose…..either I win, or I learn.”
The truth is, those who actively seek out feedback with true curiosity and openness are the people who win, because these are the people who learn. Again – I’m not great at it yet – but at least this time around I’m not alone in the journey. I have my mirrors to help guide me along the way. And that is the greatest gift of all.