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Oops… I did it again

We all make mistakes.
Some years ago when I started to work for my current company I had a internal role clearing TV advertising for the UK market. Adverts on UK TV have to be worked in the context of the codes issued by the Advertising Standards Authority (www.asa.org.uk ). The ASA is a self regulatory body set up and paid for by the advertising industry but with an independent remit; a glance at their website of their weekly adjudications – issued on Wednesdays, any advertising related stories always come out in the press on Wednesdays, in poor news weeks, just as science stories come out Thursday, coinciding with the publication of New Scientist, which always amuses me – will tell you they can be quite aggressive in their adjudications (and rightly so).
One part of their code relates to my product category at the time which was hair. According to the ASA CAP code you cannot have a cosmetic product that claims to improve the health of hair. Healthy looking is OK, as this refers to the real effects of conditioners – smoothness, softness, shine, protection from damage – which are the marks of what we believe hair in good condition should look and feel like. Anyway, healthy hair is out. Looking is in.
So it is late on a Friday and on of the marketing people come past with a storyboard for approval.
‘It’s the same one you looked at earlier in the week. Just a few changes – ‘and he points to the changes. I look at changes. They are not important from my point of view, so I approve it and take a copy for the files.
Come Monday morning and I happen to glance at the storyboard before putting it away and forgetting about it. Of course, as well as the changes he had brought to my attention he had also deleted all the references to “looking”.
My heart sinks. It was my error – he might have deliberately deceived me (OK, most people I know in marketing are better than this, but there are idiots as well as there are in any profession) but it was my mistake not to check properly.
Now this was a relatively minor mistake, but it dominated my life for several days as I bothered, shouted at and cajoled people to get it fixed – they had of course filmed and recorded the advert over the weekend so to make changes means substantial additional costs.
More than having to fix it though was the personal shame of having made such an obvious and avoidable mistake and the worry about what it might mean for future employment prospects.
Of course in this case it meant nothing at all. As it happens, I was able to get it fixed, but even if it hadn’t these things are transitory and soon forgotten in most cases. But I was made to think of this again this weekend after a conversation about a similar minor error that was causing an undue amount of stress to a friend.
None of us like to make mistakes but we all do, and all the time. A lot of the time we never even realise – I am sure I made a host of minor driving errors coming to work this morning. I sometimes overcook the vegetables. I say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. My issue is that I stress and worry about these as though they are of equal importance, when they are not. But I’m confronted every day by a culture that appears not to tolerate mistakes and I get caught up in that panic whenever something goes wrong.
There are activities of key importance where mistakes need to be avoided if at all possible. If I’m a doctor, or a pilot or a firearms policeman I have to take special care of those professional parts of my life where a mistake can have terrible consequences – and you can add your own examples to that list. There are elements of my life that I can see, when I look at them dispassionately (on that rare occasion I can get enough control to do that!) where I can see I have to take more care than others. I’m not talking about those.
But I’d like us to calm down about the common little stuff. You cannot change the mistake, and yes you are responsible for it (goodness knows I’m not advocating the trend of not taking responsibility for anything, that I see in too many people these days already) but you can deal with the result better.
If you are lucky enough that you can fix the mistake without public embarrassment, then good for you. Don’t do it again. If you cannot, then take the hit and own up, and be positive in trying to resolve it. The one thing more likely to make things worse is to appear blasé or to be caught hiding an error. A surprising number of people react positively to a confession – because they have probably made similar (or worse) mistakes before themselves.
I have also found that your reputation is an important thing to develop. If you are right 95% of the time, the people who matter will probably allow you some slack over the remaining 5% where things go a little pear shaped.
Sooner or later any shouting and annoyance will subside, and generally will not comeback – unless you make the same mistake again.
Of course this is me being positive, and there are plenty of people out there who would take the opportunity of your little mistake to further their own agendas, or just to bring you down because they are just feeling plain mean. But in that case, what is the real mistake? The error you have made – or being involved in any capacity with such people in the first place?


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